28 Medium Hierarchy

Rachel Stangl

During the 19th century, watercolour painting became a popular medium amongst amateur artists. This eruption of popularity flourished because of William Reeves and the watercolour kits he had made that allowed the practice of watercolour painting to be portable.

Because of the popularity of watercolour among amateur artists, it seemed that art institutions like the Royal Academy saw watercolour painting as a less important form of art-making. After doing some research, I had found an article that best explained this discrepancy and hierarchy within the artistic medium realm. Although based in the Americas, it still holds British and European dominance since European settlers were colonizing the America’s at this time. As curator Kathleen Foster has argued, watercolour artists “had to battle with the popular suspicion that no matter how convincing and  attractive their work appeared, it lacked permanence and ‘solidity.”1 Although this can relate to the fluidity of the medium itself, it can also relate contextually to the idea that watercolour was a medium to not be taken seriously.

Yet, who gets to decide this? And why do we grant these individuals the permission to? Even still, in today’s society, watercolour is often not taught as a professional medium or practiced critically in school but is rather seen as a fun activity in art class. I wonder if 19th century attitudes have carried over into today’s practices; where watercolour is continuously not seen as a “fine art” media alongside painting, drawing or sculpting.

Kimia Shahi has pointed out how many critics are conflicted about artists, approaches to watercolour.2 Some indicate it is a bold statement which is executed well by the artist at hand. Subsequently, many other critics stated it was bad and lacked the true representation of landscapes (or, the subject matter entirely).3 Shahi’s article narrowed in on landscape images, specifically all being done in watercolour. Did these critics paint themselves? Where did they learn their skill set from, and from whom? It is important to ask these questions because these critics truthfully formed the future of watercolour as a medium in today’s world.

It is interesting to me, and will always be interesting, how we value some mediums over others. An artist should be praised for their skill set, specifically how they handle the medium and compose a piece. Although, the medium is the first step as to whether or not an artist will become successful, especially when talking about watercolour. This discrepancy is an example that allows visual culture students to continue to analyze and appreciate images, while understanding the contexts and relations behind images in order to think critically about visual culture.


1 Kathleen Foster, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent (Yale University Press, 2017), quoted in KKimia Shahi, “William Trost Richards’s “Real Drawing” and the Currency of Watercolor, ca. 1875–85” American Art 34, no. 2 (2020), https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.proxy.library.brocku.ca/doi/full/10.1086/710473#
2 Kimia Shahi, “William Trost Richards’s “Real Drawing” and the Currency of Watercolor, ca. 1875-85” American Art 34, no. 2 (2020) https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.proxy.library.brocku.ca/doi/full/10.1086/710473#Ibid
3 Ibid

Bibliography

Shahi, Kimia. “William Trost Richards’s “Real Drawing” and the Currency of Watercolor, ca. 1875–85” American Art 34, no. 2 (2020), https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.proxy.library.brocku.ca/doi/full/10.1086/710473#

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