? AWI | Watercolour Painting

Watercolour Painting


EARLE BACKEN AM, Vice-President 1998-03




Watercolour painting has a long and glorious tradition in both Eastern and Western cultures, and has been a medium practised in Australia since the earliest days of European settlement. There was a very strong school of watercolour painting in England, and it is largely from this school that the use of watercolour developed in Australia. The fine paintings of Conrad Martens are an example of this and watercolour has continued as an important part of the painter’s vocabulary until the present day.

Members at an exhibition held in conjunction with the American Watercolour Society in 1975.
From left: Kerrie Schnorrt, Frederic Bates [President], Le Roy F.Percival Jr. {from the American Embassy, who opened the exhibition], Margaret Coen [Vice President], Hector Gilliland[ Vice President] and Cameron Sparkes [Hon. Sec.].


Watercolour, as with drawing and printmaking, has usually taken second place in importance after oil painting but, because of its immediacy and its particular properties, it has nevertheless been a medium much loved by artists.


The characteristics of watercolour are many; the luminosity, the sparkle, the brilliance of colour, and the qualities to be found in the gesture and brush-strokes, the textures obtained by the different uses of pigment and water, and the particular paper.


With all the visual arts, I personally take a very traditional point of view regarding the concept of the medium. The visual arts are just that: -- visual -- and it is through the artist’s medium that his or her statement is made. In Christian terms, it is sacramental; i.e. an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. The quality of the art work depends on the integration of the artist’s idea and its manifestation. Each medium has its own characteristics and it is through the knowledge and skill of the artist that the particular aspects of the medium are used to express his or her intention. The properties of watercolour are many and have been mentioned. The fluidity, the nuances of colour and the brushstrokes can produce works that are as sensitive as the music of Chopin or Erik Satie. Unfortunately, the subtleties of watercolour can be reduced to a weak and insipid image (a student of mine once having called watercolours of this type ‘watery colours’, which seems to sum them up very well indeed), as ‘experimentation’ can sometimes lead to unfortunate results.


Gouache or body colour have a very different character to pure watercolour, for they have an opaque character which permits much over-painting. Gouache is used by many painters, and is often combined with watercolour.


The strength of watercolour can be seen in its great adaptability, its use having resulted in some of the most unforgettable images in the history of the visual arts. The great Chinese masters are an example of this but, also in the European tradition, the watercolours of Cotman, Bonington, Turner, Sargent, Cezanne and others are amongst their greatest works. In this century, Paul Klee, Morandi, Dufy, Sam Francis and Andrew Wyeth have produced watercolours that are major expressions in their painting. In Australia, we have a great tradition also -- Arthur Streeton, David Davies, Lionel Lindsay, Hans Hyson, Frank McNamara being a few names of the many great Australian watercolour painters.


In the final analysis, the quality of a watercolour, as with any work of art, depends on the strengths of the artist’s statement. Brilliance of technique in itself can be a hindrance.


The Australian Watercolour Institute endeavours to foster the use of watercolour as a vehicle for the artist’s expression. Different attitudes and styles are encouraged but all the artists concerned are captivated by the magic of working with this beautiful [but very testy and difficult] medium.





GRAHAM AUSTIN, President 1989-2003,
Emeritus President and Life Member
Almost everybody, at some time, has made an attempt to paint in watercolour, be it as a child with a cheap paintbox and brush or as a fascinated adult wishing to have a dabble. Having a surviving interest and a genuine appreciation encourages the watercolourist to continue struggling with its contrary habits and adversities. Variations in watercolour paper also adds to its complexities.
Making a mistake in watercolour, to a purist, is to err in the greatest sense of the word. To attempt to correct that mistake is often a sure road to greater failure, whereas to err in oil is just a matter of cover-up. With watercolour, if the mistake refuses to work for the painting, the result is declared a disaster.
Those artists who say, ‘I don’t bother myself with watercolour,’ may have good reason to ignore its challenge whilst those who throw down the gauntlet often become addicted. Those who can, do.
Too often, many painters become absorbed with the spontaneity of the medium and attempt to build their works totally out of watery gimmicks more for gimmick’s sake. The real essence of the medium’s spontaneity is to test the drawing talents of the painter by interlocking imagination. In watercolour painting, poor drawing, even in abstraction, displays itself like food stains on a necktie.

Watercolour demands the highest standards possible within its uniqueness and requires incredible control, like a wild animal to the circus trainer, and yet it sits akin to handwriting. Put a ballpoint into the hands of a hundred people and you receive a hundred handwriting styles. So it is with proficient watercolourists.
Art lovers who truly appreciate the excellence of a masterly watercolour must surely recognise the annual exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute as the pinnacle of watercolour exhibitions in Australia. Each exhibition is no exception as the AWI soars to new altitudes.
The incredible, self-dependent painting styles proudly displayed in AWI exhibitions vary like the individual characters responsible for their creation. Ranging in size and executed from the technically pure, traditional gems to the exploratory masterpieces of abstraction, our exhibitions offer a glorious smorgasbord of visual poetry. Some works manifest their own version of power and glory whilst others revel in their subtleties, wafting lyrical before our eyes.
AWI exhibitions are a gallimaufry of water-based paint on paper, demonstrating an unlimited versatility of technique as the AWI willingly turns its back on negative criticisms, sometimes espoused by insensitive non-believers of the medium.
Throughout society, people of like minds have clustered to share their common interests. Many art institutions and societies have been formed over the years and many have faded out of existence almost as quickly as they have appeared. We are proud not only to have survived since 1923 but to have continued building on the beliefs, obsessions and passions of the AWI founders.

Owing to enthusiasm, hard work and perfectionist attitudes of AWI committees and members throughout the last eighty years plus, the AWI continues to emerge as a quietly achieving monarch in the history of Australian art. This statement is enhanced by browsing through the list of past and present members and recognising names of importance.


AWI Members are particularly appreciative and thankful for those who have willingly, diligently and enthusiastically donated their time, energy and material.