Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The History Of Watercolour | Botanical Illustration

As a watercolour artist, I've always been aware that my chosen medium is considered quite "traditional" and even old-fashioned. For me, I take pride in the fact that what I use to paint with has been used throughout history, and without much adaptation.

 I thought it would be interesting to find out a little bit more about it's origins, both in fine art and in illustration, in the hope that I'll better understand how I've come to rely on it to produce my work.

Albrecht Dürer

As it turns out, watercolours go a long way back.

Cave paintings can technically be considered the very first watercolours, as pre-historic man mixed pigment with a 'binder' (such as natural oil or a waxy substance) and then water to paint onto cave walls. In the Renaissance, watercolours began to make their first real mark within the art world. Typically a medium used for sketching and planning by most artists, only a few were using watercolour for final artworks.

An important figure in the establishment of watercolour was Albrecht Dürer, who is generally considered one of the earliest exponents of the medium, painting botanical, wildlife and landscape paintings.

The Renaissance saw the the popularity and importance of botanical painting soar. Watercolour was used as a way to depict minute detail and in every colour imaginable, to get as close to nature as possible.

Georg Dionysius 
Ferdinand Bauer

There was great demand for information about natural history in Europe in the early 1800s, and so the use of watercolour as a medium was on the increase. Scientists and naturalists were keen to find out about undiscovered species, traders were interested in making a profit and wealthy private gardens were looking to increase their collection.

Often this involved lengthy ocean voyages, and ingenious (but somewhat experimental) ways to preserve the plants - including building a green house onboard the ship! This makes me think of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, and all the ridiculous rooms onboard their boat.

Anyway, due to the unreliable nature of sea travel paintings and illustrations were often far better at surviving the journey. Naturalists would often commission artists to travel with them to exotic destinations and paint during the journey and on location.

For me, what I really enjoy about these illustrations, is their exacting ties with science. Often, as well as painting a whole plant on a white background, the artist would dissect parts of the specimen such as the fruit or flower and add details of these to the same painting. These paintings proved to be invaluable in recording information about a species - and look like diagrams and artwork in equal measure.

One of Franz Bauer's famous orchid paintings

I've alway's loved botanical illustrations, even before I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. I remember my nanny having lots of dusty books in her conservatory, containing beautiful paintings of plants and birds, and thinking how lovely they were. I love that their purpose is to record and that they must replicate reality; sometimes its refreshing and wonderful that art can be so practical.

I find it fascinating that the very earliest forms of illustration were created using the medium I choose today. Watercolour's tie with the most traditional form of illustration is so appealing to me, as a traditional kind of girl. To use watercolour in a modern context, to me, is to keep the medium alive - and I'm glad to help in any small way I can.


  1. I absolutely love watercolor despite the challenges and frustrations. Maybe that is one reason why I love it so much. When things work, they really work. I think it's such a beautiful work. Thanks for the history lesson.

  2. Quite alright Angela, it was a lesson for me as much as anyone else! I love that it's a challenge too, and that you only get one shot at putting the colour down correctly. Keeps things exciting! Thanks for reading :)

  3. Hi Holly,
    This makes me think of the book 'The Coral Thief' set in Jardin des Plantes just after Naploean. Natural history galore!

  4. AnonymousJune 23, 2012

    Just started following your blog recently and your immense talent is a joy to look at! I'm not a watercolorist - it's a medium I've never been able to understand. But I adore botanical and scientific illustration and am thrilled to see others enjoy it too. I took a botanical illustration course through the University of California a few years ago and it was a fun challenge, as I usually do art as inspired, rather than working on deadlines. Produced some stuff I still love today. Anyways! So glad you love it too. Nature is beautiful inspiration. Also - Alphonse Mucha! Take care and thanks for sharing your work :) <3 Veronica

  5. hat a lovely feature Holly! I adore these too, I've used watercolours since I was little, couldn't imagine ever preferring to use anything else! Faye West

  6. Hi Holly, while researching I've just come across your blog and seen one of my orchid paintings labelled as Franz Bauers. I just wanted to let you know and maybe you'd like to correct this.
    I'm a great admirer of the Bauer Bros. work though. :) Thanks, Claire Ward