China has been manufacturing paper since ancient times. The Arabs learned their secrets during the eighth century. Paper was imported to Europe until the first papermaking mills were finally established in Italy in 1276. A few other mills developed later in other parts of Europe, while England developed its first mills by 1495. However, high-quality paper was not produced in Britain until much later during the eighteenth century.
Since paper was considered a luxury item in these early ages, traditional Western watercolor painting was slow in evolving. The increased availability of paper by the fourteenth century finally allowed for the possibility of drawing as an artistic activity.
Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo began to develop drawings as a tool for practice and for recording information. Albrecht Durer (German, 1471-1528) is traditionally considered the first master of watercolor because his works were full renderings used as preliminary studies for other works. Over the next 250, years many other artists like Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599-1641) and Jean Honore Fragonard (French, 1732-1806) continued to use watercolor as a means of drawing and developing compositions.
With the production of higher quality papers in the late eighteenth century, the first national school of watercolorists emerged in Britain. This watercolor tradition began with topographical drawings that proliferated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as Britain began to grow as a world power.
These map-like renderings encompassed visual identity of ports of sea, as well as the surrounding landscape. In 1768, influential topographers founded the Royal Academy which encouraged watercolorists to carry the medium beyond their own technical achievements. The most talented watercolorist from this period was Joseph M.W. Turner (English, 1775-1851) who went on to become one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century. His contemplative landscapes were tremendously influential on dozens of artists during later decades.
Watercolour and gouache on watercolor paper
Louvre, Paris, France