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Is watercolor a gated community?

Watercolor painting has long been associated with exclusivity. The materials can be expensive, the techniques challenging to master. But does the medium’s reputation for difficulty justify labeling it a “gated community” open only to a select few? Let’s examine the history and modern landscape of watercolor to better understand who has access to this artform and who remains locked outside.

The Origins of Watercolor’s Exclusivity

Watercolor’s prestige arose in part from its portability. Compact paint boxes with watercolor cakes were easy for naturalists, explorers, and military officers to carry into the field. Paints like ultramarine and cobalt, derived from precious minerals, carried a sense of luxury. The “Grand Tour” tradition exposed wealthy young European men to transparent watercolors during their travels. As they returned home, watercolor became associated with worldliness and sophistication.

Watercolor was initially adopted by gentleman amateurs rather than professional artists. Its unpredictable results and unforgiving nature meant it lacked prestige compared to oils. But as watercolorists like Turner and Winslow Homer demonstrated the medium’s potential for complexity, it gained respectability.

Watercolor’s reputation for difficulty also stems from its techniques. Learning to control wet-on-wet washes and layer transparent colors requires practice. Certain methods like saving whites are counterintuitive. Mastering perspective in a medium that can’t be overpainted takes skill. As a result, excellent watercolor became associated with mastery and exclusivity.

The Cost Barrier

Watercolor’s expense contributes to its inaccessibility for some aspiring artists. Quality paints from trusted brands can be pricy. Many artists recommend professional-grade supplies instead of cheaper student sets. Here’s a breakdown of estimated costs for starting materials:

Item Cost
12 half pan professional paint set $30
Synthetic brushes $20
Paper pad/sheets $20
Paint palette $10

That’s around $80 just to acquire basic supplies – a significant upfront investment. And pursuing watercolor long-term has ongoing costs for replacements, specialized tools, classes, and books.

Perception Versus Reality

Watercolor’s reputation makes many believe you must be formally taught, have innate talent, or be able to practice full-time to succeed. But plenty of dedicated amateurs develop impressive skills. Watercolor societies offer mentorship opportunities. Free YouTube tutorials share expert techniques. Affordable supplies lower barriers to entry.

Some assume a background in drawing or painting is required. But foundations like composition and color theory can be learned. Tracing paper aids the transition to freehand work. Abstract and experimental styles sidestep representational challenges.

Mastering watercolor may take years. But progress can be made through regular practice. Don’t be discouraged that your early attempts don’t resemble a professional’s. Their years of refinement allow mastery of the medium.

Who Really Has Access?

Watercolor’s exclusivity affects who pursues it. A 2017 survey of American watercolor artists sheds light on the community’s demographics:

Category Percentage
Over age 50 75%
Female 84%
White 92%
Upper/middle income 67%

This data suggests watercolor appeals most to older, affluent white women who may be retired or have spare time. Younger generations with less disposable income may see it as inaccessible.

Steps Toward Inclusivity

If the watercolor community wishes to expand, here are several suggestions:

  • Offer beginner-friendly public classes through community centers and parks departments
  • Create grants and free summer programs to expose teens and children to watercolor
  • Promote excellent artists from diverse backgrounds to inspire others
  • Share watercolor techniques through videos and demos that don’t require expensive supplies
  • Welcome amateur artists into watercolor societies and exhibit their work

Watercolorists can also be welcoming by sharing supplies and expertise. Remind struggling painters that challenges are temporary plateaus on the lifelong path of an artist.


Watercolor’s prestige has cultivated an air of exclusivity and inaccessibility. Yet its gates are not as locked as some assume. With passion and practice, artists from all backgrounds can find fulfillment in watercolor painting. Let’s work to welcome budding artists by sharing knowledge, resources, and encouragement.