Abstract Expressionist Watercolors

I’m going to need some help here.

Here’s the set up: The only kind of painting that I have done in recent memory is watercolor. I am a real neophyte at it. Concurrently, I am reading about Cézanne, who worked with great effort and emphasis on composing his paintings, eliminating details that did not speak to his vision and balancing the forms, which he used as architectural elements. [1] Naturally, I thought of applying these ideas in relation to composition of a watercolor.

As I read further about Cezanne, I found that brushwork seemed to be an integral part of his painting, where the congruence of the brush strokes and the shape of the form had to be precise. Perhaps I will learn more as I read, but as I understand his work now, brushwork was paramount.

Brushwork in watercolors

How does this transfer to watercolors? There are no visible brush strokes in watercolor, aside from dry-on-dry techniques that emphasize the grain of the paper, when some of the surface does not pick up the pigment. Isn’t the point of watercolor to allow the substrate to interact with the paint (i.e., wet-on-wet, dry-on-wet, etc. techniques) for a desired effect? Are there watercolor artists who use impasto techniques? I imagine it is not a technique that watercolorists commonly use. Some say it is a waste of watercolor paint.

Abstract expressionism in watercolors

When I think of expressionism, as I have discussed previously, I think of an artist who is able to disengage herself from intellect and use her body to express itself. Jackson Pollock comes to mind as the iconic expressionist, dripping paint all over the place, seemingly without thought.

In watercolor, where planning seems to be required (if for no other reason than to preserve white space), how can expressionism of this type be possible? Is there an analogue in watercolors to the expression that brushwork provides in oil painting?

Abstract watercolors

There are abstract watercolorists. Paul Klee, [2] and John Marin [3] come to mind. I understand that some well-known abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Sam Francis used watercolor wash techniques for their work.

Does anyone know of any abstract expressionist watercolorists?

Today’s experiment

Below is my experiment of the day using watercolor, some applied directly from the tube, spread with a brush or a knife.

4 by 6 watercolor with impasto
(4X6 cold pressed 140# paper)

[1] Barnes, A.C. & deMazia, V. The Art of Cézanne Merion, Penn. USA: The Barnes Foundation Press 1986

6 thoughts on “Abstract Expressionist Watercolors

  1. In regard to brushwork, you might be interested in looking at the work of sumi-e artists, where the brush stroke is everything. Traditionally, ink is used, but you’ll see the relationship to watercolor. I disagree that brush strokes aren’t important in watercolor. Try playing with different brushes and papers. Depending on my materials and my personal energy, I get very different results.


    • Thank you for your comment. Good point about sumi-e art.
      You are right that I have not really explored the use of different brushes in watercolor. I had been reading about Cezanne’s obsession with brush strokes as they are literally, a third dimension in oil painting. I couldn’t come up with an analog for watercolors, since all brushwork (to my knowledge) is reduced to the flat plane of the paper.
      You have inspired me to try different brushes. Thank you so much.


  2. I love this watercolor and would like to share it with my class. I’m an adjunct instructor at Monterey Peninsula College in California. Your story is very touching and I think this art piece would be wonderful to share with my watercolor class. Our module will cover abstract expressionism in watercolor art. Please let me know if I have your permission to share this.

    Thanks, Georgesse Gomez

    Liked by 1 person

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