Online Magazine
Joys and challenges of a wonderful medium
Watercolor is considered to be one of the most commonly accessible paint media, used widely by amateurs and professionals alike. Unlike oil paint - viscous and slow-drying in nature - watercolor is cleaner, cheaper and easier to use. It hides a certain beauty and softness, and exudes a delicate touch. Watercolors tend to spread and dry easily. The various hues that can be depicted with it come across with a great vibrancy.

Before the advent of photography, the medium found favor for its spontaneity, versatility and maneuverability Artists used it to meticulously record eye-witness accounts. Watercolors have remained a preferred medium of artistic expression, owing to its spontaneity and ability to surprise. An immense amount of effort and energy goes into conceptualizing and creating works in watercolor that mystify, mesmerize and tempt both the creator and the viewer. The Bengal masters, namely the Tagores, Ram Kinkar Baij, Benode Bihari Mukhopadhyay, Nandalal Bose etc have all made watercolor, later followed by Ganesh Haloi and Shyamal Datta Ray, who added a depth and intensity to the medium when the Bengal school of Art traditionally used light and watery colors. “To me there are immense possibilities in it and I find it capable of expressing my delicate and finer feelings with it,” he had said.

A large cross-section of senior artists from India, including modern masters like MF Husain and other leading names including Akbar Padamsee, KH Ara, Bhupen Khakhar, Laxman Shreshtha, Prabhkar Kolte,Subhash Awchat, Lalitha Lajmi are renowned for their mastery over painting in watercolor. Several others including Papri Bose, Shruti Nelson, Anandmohan Naik and Jehangir Jani are proficient in handling the challenging medium.

It is a difficult medium to work in, yet it’s equally lyrical. Revealing his fascination for it, Akbar Padamsee has once stated about his watercolors on arches paper: "I begin in the presence of a ‘void’; a white sheet of paper and a mind devoid of thoughts. If water is ‘Shakti’ (the feminine form of divine power), and ink is the male counterpoint; the stroke of the brush is the union of the two. With each (stroke) the spaces expand exponentially. The reverse process starts, at a certain point of infrastructural complexity, silencing the manifested structures in order to release the single unique form that can finally be named; the thought process then starts again, and the ‘void’ gets filled with voices."

This challenging albeit fulfilling medium carries a yielding and sensitive quality that lends to great transparency. Late artist P. A. Dhond was among the most prominent artists who chose the medium of watercolor for his transparent yet fascinating depiction of various moods of nature. What turned the course of his artistic life was seeing Russel Flint’s scintillating seascapes. Subhash Awchat describes watercolors as a very lyrical medium whereas Jehangir Jani is enchanted by is disciplinary demand. For Prabhkar Kolte, the medium is akin to ‘an extension of my inner being’. He has employed several mediums over a long, illustrious career, but it’s the fluidity in watercolors that lures him the most. He reveals, “It’s more than a medium for me, and helps me best say what’s going on inside me."

Of course, even European masters have produced equally exquisite watercolor works. A new exhibition at Tate Britain showcases the wide array of contexts in which the medium was used such as documentation of exotic flora & fauna on Captain Cook’s vivacious voyages, on the bloody battlefield by war artists such as William Simpson and Paul Nash and spontaneous on-the spot-recordings of lovely landscapes by Turner and John Sell Cotman. There are more famous names like Ian McKeever, Andy Goldsworthy and Anish Kapoor. It shows how the contemporary pieces form part of a larger tradition wherein watercolor has been used for visionary or abstract purposes.

Passion and patience hold the keys to successful employment of watercolors. An artist cannot afford to make any mistakes while working in watercolors, since there is little luxury of wiping off the form. Unraveling the beauty of this medium, a curatorial essay elaborates: “Ranging from loose, vibrant washes of color to precise draughtsmanship, wet sponging to scratching out, the great variety of watercolor techniques is being surveyed. The idea is to show how exhibition culture of the 19th century inspired artists to vie with one another in the pyrotechnics of sophisticated techniques, leading to artists today who continue to push the boundaries of what the medium can do.

In India, top contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya have recently created a major watercolor series. Prashant Prabhu, Paresh Maity, Sanjay Bhattacharya and Samir Mondal have also left an indelible mark in watercolors. “Picture making in watercolor is an exciting game. Color becomes my opponent. Every stroke of my brush is countered by color itself and overwhelms me.” This is how the latter sums up his practice. Julius Macwan’s watercolor works carry a lovely abstract feel to them. Emerging artists like Sandip Roy stick to a traditional medium of transparent watercolor, even while trying to break new ground with his magical imagery as evident in a show at the Kolkata based gallery. These artists are keen to overturn a simplistic assumption that watercolors suit only the traditional representational painting, notably, the sea, buildings and picturesque landscape. By introducing innovative concepts and compositions, they are displaying their keenness to reinterpret the medium and notions surrounding it.

The prices of oils and acrylics have continued to rise over barring the last few recessionary years as reflected in the increasing demand. Though they may be perceived to be richer than watercolor, hence drawing higher prices, this doesn’t mean watercolors in any way have lost their fascination with collectors. It’s just that price levels for this genre of art have been comparatively more modest. For example, a 3- and 2-ft Husain canvas could roughly be pegged in the range of Rs 60-80 lakh. On the other, a watercolor of the same size by him would fetch less than Rs 50 lakh. To an extent, this mirrors the general thinking that a watercolor need not be rated and paid highly, which is not correct.

Market participants observe that they have generally been slightly more popular and in focus in the eastern part of the world, comprising Japan and China, in recent times. Despite the growing market for oil and acrylic works as well as new media forms like video art in recent years, it is watercolors that will hopefully grab the attention of connoisseurs. It’s high time that the magical medium gets its due in India.