Imagining a world without water is as difficult as visualizing the world of art without watercolours. Painting in water-based mediums and methods, including wash technique, Gouache, Tempera, Fresco, Acrylic and Emulsion, have been in practice through the history of art, in different regions and continents – from Asia and Africa to Aboriginal Australia, and Mesoamerica. Examples of paintings in diverse styles and for various purposes are found from Ancient Egypt, China, India, Turkey, Iran, Medieval Europe and Mexico. Deftness of touch, delicacy of tones, and brightness of colour are a few qualities and reasons for the popularity of water-based formats.
At some stages in art history, watercolour, instead of being merely a technique, turned into a reference for other ideas. Most importantly, in the early half of twentieth century, when painters from the Bengal School opted watercolour not for formal necessities, but as a gesture to reclaim water-based technique that represented Indian art, in contrast – and defiance of oil painting, introduced and imposed through colonial art curriculum. In later years, many women artists chose this genre opposing the overpowering impact of large scale oil paintings mostly made by men – especially painters associated with the American Abstract Expressionism.
On another level, watercolour, besides offering its pictorial and conceptual connotations, in our recent past was considered a medium to produce ‘pretty’ paintings, apt for tourist consumption of exotic subjects and scenery. The fact of its being on paper, mostly of small scale, and usually rendering a view of nature, made it a favourite art practice for commercial reasons. (A prototype before the printing of picture postcards). Easy to identify with and comfortable to carry it overseas led to generations of watercolourists who depicted scenes of hills, forests, fields, valleys, sea and harbours in their works. Perhaps the most interesting subject amidst these is the painting of water – sea, rivers, streams, ponds – in watercolours, hence medium is the message.
But water is not just water, its H2O too. Informing that a substance can be approached from multiple perspectives and points of views – all relevant and based on reality. In the month of August, normally a season of monsoon in the South Asia, one experiences torrential rains, normally flooding cities, water is everywhere. On streets, inside houses, at TV screens – and in discussions.
As in the present issue of Art Now Pakistan; where water is the main point of focus. Water being an element of art practice, as well as its significance in larger social, economic and ecological contexts. With the changes in environment, scarcity of natural resources, and its value in monetary terms (you pay for a mineral water bottle) water has become the main issue in our lives. One fears the times, when the cost of a litre of bottled water would be higher than the price for a small watercolour painting!