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Watercolor abstraction : a technique, an art, an emotion

- 15/11/2021
water color abstraction painting at carré d'artistes
Being able to step back from the realism of subjects and traditional references can sometimes be difficult.
It is, however, the guiding principle of a well-known and yet quite recent form of art : abstraction. Abstraction is a « non-representational » form of art which aims at expressing subjectivity rather than capturing the realistic features of objects and things. Abstraction is about feelings and emotions.

Watercolor abstraction : discover the (re)birth of an assumed artistic subjectivity


During the 19th century, the European artistic landscape was fuelled by a need for liberation. Progressively emancipating from the rules of traditional forms of art, artists started to experiment new painting styles using shapes, colors and layering. Paintings and pieces of arts were driven by a colorful and geometric expression of what became the primary focus of art : its subject.

Progressively, Picasso’s cubism and Matisse’s fauvism gave birth to a more global form of artistic experimentation known as « abstraction ». At the beginning of the 20th century, this new movement was defined as a form of art that sought the exact opposite of realism. By painting shapes purposely expelling the realistic nature of objects and people, artists ultimately delivered themselves from all sorts of artistic codes and principles.


Abstract watercolor : the only form of abstraction ?

For those with a few notions of art, you have probably already heard of multiple forms of abstract art. Indeed, abstraction is a type of painting with no room for conventional approaches and techniques. Abstraction is typically the form of art that can be defined as a purpose, not a style.

Consequently, abstraction is probably one the most diverse and undefinable modern form of art.
To help defining this innovative and complex movement, artists progressively initiated subcategories of abstraction. Kandinsky for instance, as well as the French artist Georges Mathieu, are often referred to as the fathers of lyrical abstraction, a form of artistic expression which relies on the absence of references and premeditated movements.
On the other side, artists such as Malevitch or Lissitsky chose to depict the « supremacy of pure artistic feeling » through wisely organised geometric forms. In the following decades, multiple types of abstract art started blooming, embodied by famous figures of modern art such as Mondrian, Pollock, and Vasarely. This generation of painters gave birth to orphism, abstract expressionism, optical art, to name but a few.


Why is watercolor abstraction trendy ?

The use of watercolor in abstract art is precisely one of the reasons why this type of painting has become so popular nowadays.
Indeed, watercolor’s unique attributes offers the ability to create a wide range of different styles and atmospheres on the canvas.


Watecolor knows how to play the transparency game

Watercolor is a type of paint that is both ambivalent and unique. Indeed, its beauty lies into its ability to obtain various degrees of transparency depending on the painting technique used. While painting with watercolor, abstract painters can thus play with layer superimposition, depending on the intensity of the paint and the amount of water used.
In this sense, the choice of the intensity of the colors and the sharpness of the shapes already says a lot on the nature of the piece an the emotion the artist is communicating. Usually, abstract painters communicate through aesthetic utterances, and explore every quality the watercolor technique can offer.

Fifty shades of (water)colors

Color is undoubtedly the key element of an abstract piece of art.
Color is a commitment. And if watercolor is for sure much more difficult to work with while creating shades and palettes, it is also one of the painting types that offers the widest range of possibilities when mastered correctly. In the 20th century, orphist and fauvist painters had already captured the power of the interplay of materials, surface textures, and more importantly of color schemes as a way to clarify and enhance a movement of vibration within a painting.

How to paint abstract watercolor ?


If watercolor painting may seem quite technical to master at first, remember that at the end of the day, painting is first and foremost an art. Do also remember that art is about exploring.
As mentioned above, abstraction is about breaking the rules, experimenting, feeling and expressing what you feel. Watercolor offers many possibilities, here are some of them you can practice on a canvas or just simply try to spot when going at the museum :


Layering is probably one of the most used techniques in watercolor paintings. Indeed, superimposing different elements of the subject can be an original and creative way to make your painting much more unique and interesting.

Abstract backgrounds

This is a quite simple and intuitive strategy you can find in famous abstract paintings.
This type of watercolor technique is indeed a good way to get you introduced with watercolor layering. To start off, simply draw a draft of your subject with a pen or something that will stay visible when layering on top your watercolor abstract background. Then use quite a lot of water to blend together the colors you wan to add in the background of your painting.

The beauty of creativity

Abstract painting, just like art in general, is in constant movement.
Artists keep discovering new innovative painting techniques and effects that push out the boundaries of art. You can try to break the rules of wash application and let your colors bleed or embrace your inner Pollow and splatter the colors on the canvas ! Try as many things as you want to give your painting the energy you are feeling. Create texture, add some layers, use everyday tools to apply your paint… The only restriction there is the limit of your imagination.


3 pieces of watercolor abstraction art you need to know


Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) - Wassily Kandinsky (1910)

watercolor abstraction by wassily kandinsky

Historically, the first watercolor abstraction piece is known as Kandinsky’s First Abstract Watercolor, dated 1910. For the record, the painting was initially untitled. A year later, the Russian painter produced Komposition V, a « monumental work » that was first exhibited in Munich in December 1911. According to art critics, this painting is probably « the first such work to be put on display » that « jumpstarted public interest in abstract painting ».

Sudliche Garten - Paul Klee (1919)

watercolor paul klee
In 1911, Paul Klee joined Blaue Reiter, a pool of artists which used non-representational art, play of color and light as a means of expressing « spiritual truths ». Specifically, Klee’s watercolors were a means of experimentation to understand his relationship with the « realm of color ».


The untitled watercolor abstractions of Gerhard Richter

The untitled watercolor abstractions of Gerhard Richter painting
Gerhard Richter’s works come in series of about a dozen of canvas, usually created in a few weeks or months.
His historical signature have been an aggressive denial of any « beautiful » watercolor effect, by using murky browns and grays and layering aggressive dark splashes and lines.
However, he has been progressively relaxing his guard and allowing whites and saturated passages to emerge, enjoying the wet-in-wet dynamism of watercolors.
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