In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a series of inventions — the Conté pencil, “wove paper,” and hard-cake watercolor paints — resulted in the rapid spread of a revolutionary art form, which we call watercolor. The portability of the medium promoted plein air painting, while the use and superimposition of colored washes fed artists’ fascination with atmospheric effects rendered subtly and with optical precision. The medium at once dared artists to take risks, yet demanded of them a control without which simple mistakes could corrupt hours of intensive work, unlike painting in oils in the studio, where such mistakes could be reversed. The watercolor revolution marks a great moment in Western art. While the early innovations took place in England and France, and great British watercolorists — Turner, Girtin, Blake — tower over the first half of the 19th century, the medium took off at the time American art began. With their love of landscape, Americans created a body of watercolor that stands as one of our nation’s proudest artistic triumphs.
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