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Renaissance Watercolours: materials and techniques

Renaissance artists used unique materials and techniques to create stunning watercolor paintings. They mixed pigments with water and gum arabic, a natural binder, to make their paints. They then applied these paints to paper, creating vibrant and detailed artworks. These techniques helped shape the art world and are still used today!

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Video transcript

For many Renaissance painters, watercolour was the medium of choice for capturing the world in fine detail. Watercolour paint is made of pigment particles mixed with a binder like gum arabic or animal glue in water. Today, watercolour artists mix water with ready-made paint and apply it to paper, creating a transparent wash. But during the Renaissance, artists used watercolour paint in a number of ways to create a variety of objects: illuminated manuscripts, portrait miniatures, and coloured drawings. Artists chose to use watercolour deliberately, rather than another medium like oil, for its technical properties and the effects it produced. ‘Illuminated’ means to give light. Artists used watercolour for illuminated manuscripts as it reflects light, creating the desired luminosity for these books. Illuminated manuscripts were often decorated with small-scale paintings in minute detail. Watercolour can be applied with a very fine brush and with precision to create this detail. Another practical advantage of watercolour is that the paint dries very quickly, unlike oil, which can take up to a year to fully dry so the pages could be bound without danger of them sticking together. And once dried, watercolour on parchment is more pliable than oil so the manuscript pages could be easily flexed and turned without cracking the paint layers. Renaissance artists also preferred watercolour for painting portrait miniatures – tiny images that could be held in the hand. In an age before photography, miniatures were used to accurately depict a person’s appearance, often a loved one. As watercolour paint reflects more light than oil paint, it was used to give a purer, brighter and more lively appearance to the sitter. Miniaturists were called ‘limners’, which means ‘those who give light’. Perhaps the most famous Renaissance limner, Nicholas Hilliard, painted this miniature of his wife Alice in 1578. Here you can see areas of opaque ‘bodycolour’. This is also watercolour paint, but it is made using a higher proportion of pigment to binder to achieve rich and smooth areas of colour that are not transparent. Hilliard would have painted this miniature directly from life in several stages, layer by layer. The advantage of using watercolour is that each layer would dry quickly enough for the painter to move on to the next stage of the painting. After applying the main areas of colour, Hilliard would have added fine details to capture his wife’s likeness. Watercolour enabled Hilliard to paint these details at this incredibly small scale. Jacques le Moyne de Morgues was one of many 16th-century artists who chose to use watercolour to record the natural world. He would have used watercolour to paint objects like this because it enabled him to capture the true-to-life colours of the fruit immediately. The way he painted has the most similarities with what we think of as watercolour painting today. You can see here that Le Moyne used black chalk to draw the rough outline of the leaf. Watercolour artists today often start with a sketched outline too, using pencil. Le Moyne would have made the watercolour paint himself by grinding the pigment and mixing it with powdered gum arabic. By doing this himself, he could vary the consistencies of the paint. In some places, you can see he used more roughly ground paint with large pigment particles to create texture. With pre-ground paint, most watercolourists today create texture in other ways. Here a modern-day artist uses a relatively dry brush to produce a stippling effect to mimic the interior texture of a pomegranate. To show highlights, Le Moyne used a variety of techniques. He made the white highlights on the pomegranate stem with white bodycolour – opaque watercolour paint. But he created the highlights on the red seeds by simply leaving the white paper underneath unpainted. This is a technique that watercolour artists continue to use, seen here on both the outside of this pomegranate and on the seeds. Today, watercolour remains a versatile medium, ideal for capturing life-like details that help us to record and understand our diverse and colourful world.