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Hard lines (also referred to as tidelines) are often visible along the edges of a watercolor stroke, and result from the deposit of pigment particles as the paint dries; an excellent example of this can be seen in the photomicrograph detail above of Paul Cézanne's The Balcony. The field of view is 3/4" in diameter.


The luminosity of an expertly rendered watercolor relies on the interplay of individual and overlapping color washes and the white of the paper. The transparent washes allow light to pass through and reflect back from the paper beneath, so that overlapping strokes combine optically to produce new colors. If sufficient drying time is not allowed before applying the overlying strokes of color, the moist colors will run together, an effect Charles Demuth, among others, controlled and used to his advantage.

Watercolor has been used since ancient times, even predating the use of paper. It appeared very early in Egyptian papyrus paintings, and later on parchment in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. Watercolors consist of finely ground pigments or dyes suspended in water by means of a plant gum, generally gum arabic. As the paint dries, the coloring agents stain the support or are stuck to its surface by the gum.

Shown above are a paint box containing pans of watercolor and, to the left, materials used to manufacture watercolor paint - powdered pigment at top, and granular gum arabic below.

Watercolor is a versatile medium that allows artists to explore a variety of application techniques. Charles Demuth used a technique that involved sprinkling salt on a wet watercolor wash, allowing it to dry, and then brushing it away to produce a dappled effect.

Displayed below is a page detail from a trade catalogue published by Winsor & Newton, Limited in 1887. The graduated watercolor washes on the sample swatches were applied by hand. Such catalogues are valuable sources for information on the formulations, permanence and lightfastness of watercolor paints.

Sample swatches on a page from A Descriptive Handbook of Modern Water-colour Pigments


Examples from the Collection


The Balcony
The Balcony, c. 1900
Paul Cézanne, French
Watercolor and graphite on wove paper (recto and verso)
Sheet: 22 1/4 × 15 7/8 inches (56.5 × 40.3 cm)
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1943
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Some of the most beautiful examples of the interplay between the tone of the bare paper and deftly applied color washes occur in the works of Paul Cézanne. In The Balcony, seen at the left, strokes of translucent watercolor mingle and overlap to create new hues in Cézanne's sparkling rendition of foliage, as seen through the dark gray curves of a wrought-iron grille. The characteristic luminosity of the translucent washes depends on the white of the paper reflecting light back through thin veils of color. The artist also used soft graphite pencil lines to structure the picture and loose hatch marks to create tone and texture. This watercolor was executed late in Cézanne's life, after he had moved from Paris back to his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. Scientific and historic research of a number of Cézanne's watercolor paintings has indicated that the artist used a fairly narrow range of pure pigments straight from the pan or tube, rarely combining them before application to the paper. Such study has also helped to define subtle changes that have occurred in some of the colors as they age. This condition is particularly true of emerald green, a pigment used extensively by Paul Cézanne and found in The Balcony.


Glance of a Landscape
Glance of a Landscape, 1926
Paul Klee, Swiss
Watercolor, sprayed through stencils and brushed, on paper, mounted on board inscribed by the artist
Sheet: 11 7/8 × 18 1/8 inches (30.2 × 46 cm)
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950
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In Glance of a Landscape, Paul Klee spattered watercolor over stencils and netting - the effect of the latter especially visible in the bottom left corner of the composition. This type of experimentation is characteristic of the Swiss artist's work during the 1920s, while he was teaching at the renowned German art school, known as the Bauhaus. Brushstrokes of pale gray opaque watercolor are applied on top of the broadly spattered transparent watercolor to create trees. As seen here, Klee characteristically mounted his drawings to a larger sheet of cardboard on which he wrote the title and date of this composition.

In Glance of a Landscape, Paul Klee created shapes by spattering and spraying watercolor over stencils, as shown in the mock-up above.


In Vaudeville (Dancer with Chorus)
In Vaudeville (Dancer with Chorus), 1918
Charles Demuth, American
Watercolor and graphite pencil on laid paper
Sheet: 12 11/16 × 8 1/16 inches (32.2 × 20.5 cm)
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952
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A resident of the quiet country town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Charles Demuth was also part of avant-garde artistic and literary circles in New York and Paris. Between 1915 and 1919, while at the height of his mastery, the artist painted a series of watercolors depicting vaudeville performers. His watercolor technique was subtle and unique, employing a variety of methods to create texture and special effects. In In Vaudeville: Dancer with Chorus, for example, he exploited the idiosyncrasies of fresh wash, painting wet-into-wet to produce tidelines or drifts of more or less concentrated pigment within a form, such as the dark suit of the dancer. In this work Demuth used a technique he perfected, sprinkling table salt into wet washes to create dappled textures, as seen, for example, at the bottom right of this composition. He also blotted moist washes to soften their edges so that they gradually blend with each other or fade away. Supple graphite pencil lines provide both the underdrawing and graphic details such as the facial features and hair of the dancers.

Watercolor is a versatile medium that allows artists to explore a variety of application techniques. Charles Demuth developed a technique that involved sprinkling salt on a wet watercolor wash, allowing it to dry and then brushing it away to produce a dappled effect. This effect is demonstrated in the mock-up above.

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