Yesterday, Marsha Chatman wrote, “I’d like to know what value or prestige is given to works done on paper compared to oil on canvas. Here in Italy, art on paper seems to be a second-class citizen and considered mainly preparatory. What about the accuracy, confidence, freshness and delicacy that paper requires? Do you think it’s because people are simply unable to do quality works on paper?”
Thanks, Marsha. Anyone who has accepted the challenge of watercolour knows how tough it is to get that fresh, unlaboured look that the medium asks. I’ve watched perfectly sane folks with high intentions become emotionally unhinged, throwing ripped Whatman into the dumpster.
While artistically sensitive folks may treasure paper art because of its difficulty and sensitivity, the general public often doesn’t. Fluctuating with the times, public devaluation has come about for several reasons. With all the technology around these days, paper art doesn’t always look handmade. Recently, the flooding of the market with inexpensive photo-lithos, photocopies and giclees has cast a negative light on all things paper. The downward pull has been felt by all. Even the repro-makers have fought the trend by printing on canvas. Then there’s the business of getting the artist or others to put a few juicy strokes here and there to make a print more like an “original.” When mild deceit enters, mild distrust arises.
The perceived prestige of oil on canvas is based on a rich tradition. It was good enough for Rubens, Rembrandt and Renoir. Funnily, acrylic, even though those guys never heard the word, currently gets away with similar glory. Probably a better binder, acrylic’s only problem is it’s not oil. Everyone knows oil is expensive. An oil well in the back yard is almost as good as a Rembrandt at auction.
We need no snobbery or pecking order by media. We of the brotherhood and sisterhood need to go out of our way to praise and feature all works done with joy, integrity and quality, no matter what the support or medium. We need to educate and inform by showing enthusiasm for all art that is simply better. The three artists mentioned above used paper for preparation, mastered paper techniques, and saw paper’s value and beauty. Their drawings and sketches hold thrills of their own. Let’s go for the democratization of quality.
PS: “Their houses are new, but their prejudices are old.” (Alexander Griboyedov, 1795-1829)
Esoterica: In our daily quest for joy, we ought not lose our respect for craft. When art comes too easily, it loses its art. “Watercolour painting is notoriously difficult,” said Walter J. Phillips, “so much depends on directness and speed, and certainty of intention. Tentative or fumbling touches are disastrous, for they cannot be obliterated easily.”
Canvas taken more seriously?
by Nicoll Heaslip, Melbourne, Australia
As a lettering artist almost all of my work is on paper. Just yesterday I decided to buy a canvas to have a go at lettering onto it, and found that the cost of a sheet of the quality paper I normally use is twice as expensive as the canvas I bought. Also, I won’t have such heavy framing expenses. Perhaps being on canvas my work will be taken more seriously – however I doubt very much that I will be able to obtain the crispness and detail that good paper affords.
by Adriana Buggino, Italy
Here in Italy, not only there is no prestige given to art on paper, but they hardly accept Watercolour paintings as art. Watercolour is only “Graphics.” That is only to colour a drawing, this is the common opinion. People are completely stupid about watercolour art. If there is an art contest, there are a lot (and high) prizes for oil paintings, for watercolour only a few and small prizes! So is watercolour painting considered ART?? Or what is it in our days? I think it is art, perhaps it is more art than acrylics or oil, because the opportunity to correct errors is very limited as the colours are transparent. It is art, because the water does its work (if you let it), the colour does its work being moved by the water, the PAPER does its work together with pigment and water. The sun, wind and temperature influences water-pigment-paper!! Everything flows, painting with watercolors!
Art behind glass
by Katherine Tyrrell, UK, UK
Glass might be responsible for keeping the status of works on paper lower than that of unglazed work in oils or acrylic. Glazing seems to be seen by many galleries as ‘getting in the way’ of the artwork and its viewer. I know you can get glass which doesn’t reflect but this seems to be frowned on for a reason I don’t quite understand. A friend of mine, Nicole Caulfield, switched from using her chosen medium of coloured pencils on an abrasive paper to using it on Ampersand Pastelbord so she could varnish and frame without glazing. Her style is unchanged but her work became much more popular in galleries — and it seems to me that her decision to take glass out of the equation is at least partly responsible for her success with sales.
Students surprised at the revelation
by Cheryl Lobenberg, Sacramento, CA, USA
I have been a watercolor artist for over 35 years. Within the past six years, I have done almost all my gallery and commission work in acrylic. It simply commands more money. I greatly enjoy and am perpetually challenged by both mediums, but, sad to say, watercolor stays nearer the bottom of the prestige ladder. I have been an adjunct art professor for eight years and have the pleasure of teaching acrylic, oil, and water color classes. Students are challenged with all three mediums, but the higher frustration levels come in my watercolor classes. After getting well into a semester, I explain to my students that water color art does not get nearly the same respect as oil or acrylic, and most are surprised with this revelation! But such is life. I’m a full time working artist, so I follow the money. Water color is relegated to class room and workshop projects.
Alternate supports for pastels
by Nina Whidden, Victor, NY, USA
There are some gorgeous papers out there; hand-made, archival, acid-free, and an amazing array of colors. However, that is generally devalued to a collector as you already stated. Even my pastels, which I love using a sanded paper like LaCarte or UArt for, I find when I am making something with the intent to sell it, I often use Pastelbord and even canvas! Believe it or not, canvas is a lovely surface for pastels. Sense clear-primed linen canvas has a gritty texture so nothing more needs to be done with it. You can just start painting/drawing with your pastels with no additional prep. Other canvases simply need to have a pastel primer like Colourfix pastel primer as a final priming layer. You can also mix some fine pumice into your gesso. If you decide to hand-mix in pumice, ensure that the pumice is evenly disbursed throughout the gesso. You don’t want any clumps or areas with no pumice at all. Some pastel artists don’t realize there are other options.
Oil on paper
by Cyril Satorsky
I’ve done oil on paper for a number of years and find it highly satisfactory. I use Fabriano Artistico 400lb hot pressed, it’s already double sized and has a nice tooth and is deckle edged. At that weight the paper is nicely rigid and doesn’t need stretching. I give it a coating of acrylic gesso on both sides and it’s ready to paint on. Because the paper is so rigid and firm it doesn’t cockle when you apply the gesso which dries before it can soak the paper. I then tape or pin it to a board and am ready to work. One of its joys is you can put thirty 20×30 paintings in a portfolio enough for a show; a great space-saver in the studio. My canvases take up a lot of storage space.
Quality of work is the ultimate value
by Donald Cadoret, Tiverton, RI, USA
Although history does confirm that sometimes there is a pecking order among media and supports, the opposite is also true. Consider Romare Bearden’s amazing collages, Joseph Cornell’s incredible shadow boxes and the intricate watercolors and drawings of 19th century landscape artist William Trost Richards. In the supposed pecking order of values, I guess we should consider their works of lesser value, compared to oil paintings done at the same time. But, if you really look at fine examples from these artists, you will see that their “lesser works” are truly masterpieces and considered as such by collectors and experts in the field. As a result, their lesser works are extremely valuable. What does this teach us? It’s not the medium that makes it more valuable, it’s the quality or the work, ultimately its execution. Working to this end and exhibiting at this level will always pay off for living artists.
So what’s the problem?
by Suzanne Kelley Clark
I have been painting in oil on paper since 1984. I remember first thinking that it was a super alternative to making studies on expensive canvases. Later, after beginning to be completely won over by its beautiful surface, I used it exclusively. I used heavy weight watercolor papers with a deckled edge, gessoed and worked on the imperial size. They looked spontaneous and very handmade drop-hinged in a frame with spacers or a deep mat. Not many people have questioned what the image is painted on… I think a good rag paper well cared for is just as good as cotton canvas without the advantage of glazing material for protection. Anyway I agree that what we need to look for is quality. The works of Constable on paper are stunning as are Corot’s paper paintings from his trips to Italy. They still exist… so what is the problem?
Medium of the masters
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
My watercolor teacher from college, the late Michael Frary, called watercolor “the medium of the masters.” Yes, it is a very difficult medium. You have to paint backwards, i.e., leave out the whites (or mask them), paint a detail here while a generalized area of wash is drying over there. This requires very precise drawing skills. You must also be able to accurately judge the relative wetness/dryness of the paper in order to glaze over a wash in a precise manner, depending on whether you want softness or crispness of an edge. In addition, the relative translucency or opacity of the pigments comes into very prominent play. Frary taught us to work on more than one painting at a time. This allows the artist to keep working while a painting dries just the right amount, also helps prevent overpainting and losing the freshness.
Owner’s manual for art sold
by Colin Bell, Calgary, AB, Canada
As a dual-medium painter (oils and watercolours) I regret the present public disdain for watercolour. Consider the delightful work of John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. They have a character that cannot be matched in other media. Lately, some painters have resorted to painting watercolours on canvas, or to applying acrylic varnish to the work rather than placing the finished product under glass. Although both these derivations produce interesting work, to my mind they do not maintain the fresh spontaneity of watercolour on paper. Of course, painters in oils and acrylics can sell work more readily, and are unlikely to disabuse the public as to the fragility and drawbacks affecting the longevity of their products. I possess an old Dutch oil (circa 1910) that has extensive craquelure, and have seen many other oils of even newer provenance that have significantly deteriorated canvas, requiring very expensive restoration. I believe the longevity of a painting will depend not only on the medium and backing but on the care given it by its owners. Painters should sell each painting with a concise owner’s manual, as a guide to owners wanting to display their art in their indoor swimming pool, sun room or other similarly difficult environments.
Work in coloured pencils
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
For years I had a love affair with paper, mainly Strathmore 500 series. Watercolor was not my media of choice. It was graphite and Prismacolor colored pencils. I became active in the local and national Colored Pencil Society, entered many shows and my paintings traveled across the country. But when I approached galleries they said, “We love this can you do it in Oils.” It was the first time I’d thought of the term “Works on Paper” since college days. I’d forgotten. I tried oils, but oils are oils, pencils are pencils. I love both, but I shine on paper. Things became more complicated when it became impossible to ship glass and plexi broke the bank. Funny all the silly labels we put on things. Fortunately there were people who wanted to learn how to draw, but the local community college and art center ran low on funds so that opportunity died. But you know what? I feel freed from it all. I’m just doing what I love everyday which is creating art and I don’t worry about it. Everything seems to just work out. Freedom is what it is all about and you don’t have freedom if you try to please those who make the rules.
Water-based media on other supports
by Rita Goldner, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
I’ve used watercolor (or gouache) for on-location painting outdoors. I do a lot of “tentative and fumbling touches” as described by your quote of Walter J Phillips, and sometimes get sand, dirt and bird droppings (everyone’s a critic) on my paintings. So I’m trying to avoid the “disasters that cannot be obliterated easily” by using textured Clay board, Pastel board, canvas board, stretched canvas or Luan (Mahogany) panels. The last three need a preparation coat or two of absorbent ground over the gesso. I think you can still get the fresh transparent look without the fragility of paper. When finished, I spray with Krylon to avoid having to frame with glass. The only problem is that purist watercolor associations won’t let you enter their contests or shows. The puzzling thing is that sometimes the watercolor associations will let you enter an acrylic or casein, as long as it’s on paper (not on one of the above-mentioned supports). Why is the support more important to them than the medium?
Supremacy of watercolour
by Peter Marsh, Toronto, ON, Canada
For any number of reasons, it is likely that the recent impatience with watercolor as a significant medium will die a thousand deaths that it has died in the past. With rising and falling interest, watercolour, and its close cousin tempera, has been used for thousands of years and certainly much longer than oil and acrylic. Although bas-relief carvings, mosaics, stained-glass work, metal enameling, egg tempera and casein, gouache, oil painting, acrylic painting, and any number of modern media, have made their honest attempts at rendering the story of existence, none have ever replaced the use of watercolor.
Although evidence is scarce from the 50,000 years or more of our native people’s existence, use of watercolour over the last 500 years of Canadian history is a matter of record. It is likely that the first European style paintings done here were rendered in watercolour, from the topographical paintings of early military exploration, to the dabblings of early pioneers.
Our more recent history introduces famous names of those who used this medium extensively. There is no reason to believe over the similar times of colonial expansion in the rest of the world that this story was not repeated.
In comparison it is easy to understand why patrons flock to the brilliance of oil and acrylic paintings. They provide an intense colour experience in otherwise subdued and naturally coloured surroundings. They are also often rendered large, a not so easy thing to do or frame in watercolour. They provide a concentration of pigment unavailable in watercolour, and by this alone make themselves less fragile than the mere milli-microns delivered in a watercolor wash.
But all of this is not to write off the supremacy of watercolour. All media have their standing, and watercolor cannot be diminished in this regard. It is true that it is a very difficult medium in terms of reaching a confident expression. It also has its own eloquence in its more subtle colours and often intimate brushstrokes. It is classic in its simplicity of water, pigment, and artist, being the only ingredients in the recipe.
In Canada, works on paper are championed by the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. Popular or not in contemporary circles, we continue to exhibit the most outstanding expressions of our artists in an annual exhibition that is second to none. Despite the fact that here, and perhaps elsewhere, the medium has been ignored by official circles, both in its promotion and exhibition, individual artists, following the stand of many movements that preceded them, continue to pursue their ideas and their painting expression against all odds. They will themselves, along with their medium, be vindicated in the end by those who look back and see what great work was accomplished.
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Peter Marsh is the Vice President of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. The American Watercolour Society offers one of the most prestigious and highest consistent quality venues for the world’s top watercolorists.
Enjoy the past comments below for Works on paper…
oil painting on canvas, 30 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Emily Painton of Austin, TX, USA who wrote, “One of my favorite artists is Toulouse-Lautrec. I wrote my thesis over his images of prostitutes, and many of those images are quick oil paint or pastel on cardboard.”
And also Dorothy Barta of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I work in watercolor, oil and pastel, mostly portraits. When I work in watercolor I may do three or four studies before I get a final painting. With oil and pastel I finish only one. My price is the same for all media.”
And also Kerim Kahyagil of Istanbul, Turkey who wrote, “I think this has something to do with the way watercolor is presented. That piece of glass (normal or reflecting) between the brush strokes and viewer gives the impression of a reproduction. I wish we could get rid of it.”
And also Cristina Monier of Buenos Aires, Argentina who wrote, “A serious collector knows that the life of art on paper is limited and restoring a torn paper is difficult and expensive, sometimes impossible, whereas a painting on canvas can be restored once and once again and, if it is well cared for, will last for centuries.”
And also Carol Morrison of Halifax, NS, Canada who wrote, “In Nova Scotia the printmakers association has made up a list of different types of prints for gallery owners, ranking them from photocopies at the bottom to original hand-pulled prints at the top. The thinking is that the buyer should be educated, so they clearly understand what they’re buying.”
And also Kelli Maier of Westerville, OH, USA who wrote, “Maybe I am naive but I don’t bother with concerns like these. I create to create and if someone doesn’t want to buy it… someone else will.”