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Pure Watercolour or Pure Snobbery?

I haven’t posted anything here before so I am somewhat hesitant about inflicting my opinions on you,as I dare say that the topic of Pure vs Whatever it takes has been addressed addressed .
Pure Watercolour as I understand it is a title designating painting in such a manner that excludes the addition of anything to the paper other than graphite and pigment , the lightest areas being untouched paper.
This practice was championed by Edward Wesson and James Fletcher Watson , both great Watercolourists in the English tradition.
Why this practice came into being I have not discovered and perhaps someone can enlighten us all,but it has certainly gained popularity .
Societies have been formed usually including terms such as Pure or Transparent watercolour .
Now I dare say one could be accused of being churlish by denouncing such institutions as being snobbish and boorish but the Art and practice of Watercolour goes a lot further back than the two gentlemen mentioned , and would these societies forbid Artists such as Turner,Homer and Sergeant from exhibiting ? These Artists used watercolours and opaque whites as a means to an end not because they wished to flout some imposed ideal.

Purism has long been a refuge for those who have to find (or declare) an anchor – an unwavering measuring stick. Sadly, well-embedded anchors make further movement impossible… and the dynamism of art is one of its most charming attributes.


Sometimes David anchors stop us drifting and losing our direction

I quite often use charcoal for underdrawing fixed with brushed on diluted Gum Arabic for my watercolors and then have an internal discussion is it still a watercolor? Eventually, I come the conclusion it doesn’t matter. If you challenge yourself you grow and your process changes.

Interesting topic, Brian. I paint in watercolour and aim to follow the pure watercolour principles. My understanding is that Pure Watercolour painting is the application of just one layer of watercolour paint. So you choose the correct tonal depth for the next brushstroke, and apply it in one go. The idea being that the whiteness of the paper behind the paint can therefore still shine through, giving pure watercolour works that lovely glow, as if lit from behind. If you get the tone or colour wrong, the idea is to start another painting rather than go over the area with another layer, because that begins to dull the light. Also, in pure watercolour, you generally try to only use the white of the paper and not opaque white paint for your whites, although the odd touch is fine.
It’s my favourite kind of watercolour because for me it’s all about that special and unique clear freshness you get with watercolour. The Pure Watercolour societies’ aims and reason for being set up is to promote and educate and keep the tradition going, as many watercolour artists now use the layering techniques to create their paintings. I don’t see any snobbery, personally, as they’re not rubbishing other styles, only saying that pure watercolour is worth preserving. I personally love it and it really makes me aware of looking for the light and taking care to study tones. That’s it, finished. Phew!

I once painted in a group that included a 90-year old watercolor painter. She was excited because the society she belonged to now allowed the use of white paint. The thought that a 90-year old artist would let anyone tell them what they could or could not use in their art puzzled me.

“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member” – Groucho Marx


Well said,Richard people talk of a tradition of pure Watercolour , What Tradition? Somebody please tell me about it! Thanks Richard

I think it is good to learn the traditional way and then use it as a jumping off point to do whatever you want. Art is about creativity. You can’t be creative if you are stuck in a box, but you can’t express yourself if you don’t have the skills.


Hi all , this is a rather touchy subject.You can question a lot of different artists as to what is transparent watercolor and you’ll get many different answers. Being a watercolor artist I think the bottom line should be the beauty or the appeal of the finished product. Who cares how you got there? Or what you used. I dropped out of a Transparent Watercolor Society because of the ridiculous, stifling set of rules. They actually go over the accepted painting with a microscope to make sure non-transparent media was used (here lies the snobbery I think). Watercolor is a wonderful medium, used in many different ways. My personal view is if you add more rules, yo get less creativity.

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Dear Caroline.
Are you serious in telling me that one wash left ,then another , near or next to the initial wash is a legitimate way to use watercolour I am astonished , certainly neither Wesson nor Watson painted in such a fashion and they were the Architects of pure Watercolour ,this sounds more like Zen Archery , sort of point , believe , close your eyes and let go .
You are entitled to believe in what you will but this is more akin to a Cult or Fetish .
Free yourself Caroline come back from the dark side and rejoice in the freedoms ascribed by Turner , Sargent ,Winslow ect