New Archive Digitizes 80,000 Historic Watercolor Paintings, the Medium Through Which We Documented the World Before Photography

The water­col­or paint­ing has a rep­u­ta­tion for light­ness. It’s a casu­al endeav­or, done in scenic out­door sur­round­ings on sun­lit days. Water­col­ors are the choice of week­end hob­by­ists or chil­dren unready for messier mate­ri­als. Water­col­ors, in oth­er words, are often treat­ed as unse­ri­ous. But for a cou­ple hun­dred years, they served a very seri­ous pur­pose. In addi­tion to being a portable medi­um with an expan­sive range, water­col­ors’ ease made them the pri­ma­ry means of mak­ing doc­u­men­tary images before pho­tog­ra­phy com­plete­ly took over this func­tion by the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry when portable con­sumer cam­eras became a real­i­ty.

“Before the inven­tion of the cam­era,” explains the Water­colour World, “peo­ple used water­col­ors to doc­u­ment the world. Over the cen­turies, painters—both pro­fes­sion­al and amateur—created hun­dreds of thou­sands of images record­ing life as they wit­nessed it. Every one of these paint­ings has a sto­ry to tell.”

The Water­colour World is a large-scale dig­i­ti­za­tion of thou­sands of water­col­ors found hid­den away in draw­ers all over the UK by for­mer diplo­mat Fred Hohler, who came up with the idea for the project while on a tour of Britain’s pub­lic col­lec­tions.

“The value—and excitement—of the Water­colour World project,” writes Dale Bern­ing Sawa at The Guardian, “is that it views these his­toric paint­ings as doc­u­ments, not aes­thet­ic objects.” That’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly how their cre­ators’ saw them. “A lot of the val­ue in these images is… acci­den­tal. Often it’s the context—replete with tree­lines, snow­lines or waterlines—the artist paint­ed around, for exam­ple, the flower they’d set out to record.” Such acci­den­tal doc­u­men­ta­tion cap­tured one of the first known images of Mount Ever­est, sit­u­at­ed in the back­ground, in a paint­ing from the 1840s. Of course much of the doc­u­men­tary pur­pose was intentional—in land sur­veys and sci­en­tif­ic illus­tra­tions, and in the many paint­ings, like that above from 1833, of Mount Vesu­vius erupt­ing.

These images are becom­ing increas­ing­ly impor­tant to sci­en­tists and his­to­ri­ans as ice-caps melt, his­tor­i­cal sites are bombed or van­dal­ized, and flo­ra and fau­na dis­ap­pear. With a focus on pre-1900 images, the site launched with around 80,000 dig­i­tized water­col­ors, a num­ber that could expand into over a mil­lion, Hohler esti­mates, at which point, it will become an “absolute­ly indis­pens­able tool to help us under­stand today.” As for under­stand­ing the con­text in which these works were created—it’s com­pli­cat­ed. Many of the paint­ings come with a wealth of iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion. Some of the artists were pro­fes­sion­als, some mil­i­tary drafts­men, botanists, expe­di­tion water­col­orists, and sur­vey­ors.

Some had long, dis­tin­guished careers tak­ing over oth­er coun­tries, like colo­nial British Gen­er­al James Mau­rice Prim­rose, who paint­ed sev­er­al very impres­sive land­scapes in India like 1860’s “In the Neil­gher­ries,” above. And there are also “untold num­bers of ama­teurs,” Sawa writes, “which Hohler sus­pects will turn out to have been most­ly women, unpaid for their time and skill—who picked up a paint­brush to record the world around them.” Who­ev­er these painters were, and what­ev­er moti­vat­ed them to make these works of art, we can be grate­ful that they did, and that these thou­sands of paint­ings, many of which are quite frag­ile, sur­vived long enough for dig­i­ti­za­tion in this impres­sive pub­lic project.

“By mak­ing his­to­ry more vis­i­ble to more peo­ple,” the Water­colour World puts it, “we can deep­en our under­stand­ing of the world.” The UK-based orga­ni­za­tion seeks paint­ings from around the globe; “there are thou­sands of water­colours still to add.” If you have some pre-1900 works to con­tribute, you are encour­aged to get in touch and find out if they’re suit­able for inclu­sion. Enter the Water­colour World here.

via The Guardian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it a New Dig­i­tal Archive of 2.2 Mil­lion Images from the First Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy

The Get­ty Dig­i­tal Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Down­load High Res­o­lu­tion Scans of Paint­ings, Sculp­tures, Pho­tographs & Much Much More

Down­load for Free 2.6 Mil­lion Images from Books Pub­lished Over Last 500 Years on Flickr

25 Mil­lion Images From 14 Art Insti­tu­tions to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online In One Huge Schol­ar­ly Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Lisa Purcell says:

    Wow, did you real­ly have to knock water­col­or right off the bat? It is a seri­ous medi­um, one in which many mas­ters have worked — James McNeill Whistler, William Blake, Winslow Homer, Mary Cas­satt, Andrew Wyeth, Vin­cent Van Gogh, etc.
    This was a hor­ri­bly writ­ten arti­cle that unnec­es­sar­i­ly insult­ed an entire medi­um:
    “A lot of the val­ue was acci­den­tal.”
    “It’s a casu­al endeav­or, done in scenic out­door sur­round­ings on sun­lit days. Water­col­ors are the choice of week­end hob­by­ists or chil­dren unready for messier mate­ri­als”.
    This could have been an amaz­ing arti­cle, had the author not shown such bias.

  • Jim Dunbar says:

    I could­n’t agree more with Lisa Pur­nell! I am a pro­fes­sion­al artist and val­ue my water­colour work as impor­tant as any oil paint­ing I pro­duce. Water­colour paint­ing requires a very demand­ing tech­nique and cer­tain­ly is not an easy method of record­ing. Shame on your arti­cle!
    Jim Dun­bar PRSW RWS RGI

  • Josh Jones says:

    Please par­don the offense to water­col­ors

  • Robert Mee says:

    A very out­dat­ed view on water­colour painting,this is no longer the case.Better research next time.
    Pro­fes­sion­al artist Robert Mee

  • Ace Tiger says:

    I’ve all ways been an artist.
    I used water­col­ors last 58yrs.
    I began with water­col­ors.
    Well writ­ten & Accu­rate 100%.A+.
    Fool­ish com­ments towards Josh Jones.
    Com­ing from sor­ry cry babies that Love 2 Com­plain about Any & Ever sin­gle dann thing! Sure­ly spoiled rot­ten or just “Left Alone” 2 raise them­selves Appar­ent­ly! Wish I could show you my Art col­lec­tion Josh…let me know if & when Hilo Hawaii is in your future plans we can Paint on our black sand beach­es Surf & fish 2 Alo­has

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