Laura Gascoigne

A time for living dangerously

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Why watercolours deserve their revival in popularity

When the National Gallery ran its eye-tracking experiment last year into how we look at pictures, the works selected for the test were all oil paintings. Had they been watercolours, the results might have been quite different. Going round the Girtin show at Tate Britain recently, I noticed that people look at watercolours differently. Without the National Gallery's sophisticated surveillance equipment, I'm not in a position to comment on their eye movements, but I can report that they look harder and closer, as if their interest is not just in a picture's subject, but in how it's made.

This may be partly because, on a mid-week afternoon in August, the gallery was packed with eager dabblers on the lookout for top watercolour tips. But they can't all have been Sunday painters, and they all peered. The size of the pictures doesn't explain it, as most are quite large. The only explanation I can think of is that watercolour encourages this sort of intimacy by wearing its art transparently on its sleeve. As a painting medium, it is open and democratic: you don't have to remove its veils of pigment to arrive at the secret of its creation, nor do you need a training in picture conservation to see exactly how much or how little work went into it. 'A lot of work', observed one lady visitor of one picture, and of another: 'There's hardly anything there!' (The first was by Edward Dayes, the second by Turner; watercolour also has a subversive habit of turning the Protestant work ethic on its head.)

This has been a bumper year for watercolour exhibitions, with Cotman at the British Museum, Girtin at Tate Britain and a Bonington bicentenary coming to Nottingham Castle Museum at the end of October. It's also a year that opened auspiciously with an unlikely portent: an exhibition at ART2002 of watercolour paintings commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery from 45 cutting-edge artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Cornelia Parker and Julian Opie, most of them watercolour virgins (and it showed). Of course there's no reason in principle why the same art world that embraces the Turner Prize shouldn't find room in its heart for the old boy's favourite medium. The contemporary art world doesn't lack diversity; the rainforest could take a leaf out of its book. So I suppose it shouldn't surprise us that in the 21st century a medium indelibly tainted by association with underemployed Edwardian ladies and retired holiday painters in panama hats is coming back into style. The interesting question is, why now?

One reason, though I'm loth to admit it, must be the success of Watercolour Challenge, Channel 4's popular game show hosted by Hannah Gordon in which amateurs across the country compete to bring a noble art to its knees in the name of entertainment. The Tate bookshop has obviously made this connection, as it has stacks of Watercolour Challenge books for sale outside the Girtin show. But the lion's share of the credit surely belongs to the Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition - at the Mall Galleries until Saturday and then touring - which in the 15 years since its establishment by an enthusiastic past chairman has given the medium a new lease of life with an annual injection of £30,000 prize money. As one of this year's short list put it simply, 'There's nothing like the incentive of a good cash prize.'

Singer & Friedlander take their sponsorship duties seriously. To prove they're not just sloshing prize money around, they've recently put their mouth where their money is and raised the stakes artistically as well as financially. Rather than get bogged down in traditionalism, they've broken new ground - and offended the purists - by throwing the competition open to all water-based media, including ink, gouache and acrylic. This is a brave move (how brave should be clear to anyone reading selector Frank Whitford's introduction to this year's catalogue, where he assures prospective critics of his judgment that he bought new glasses on their advice last year).

Visiting this year's show, it's hard to imagine how the crustiest of traditionalists could resist the attraction of its vibrant mixture of styles. The 133 paintings chosen from a submission of 1,000, run the gamut of conceivable techniques from obsessively photorealistic to flamboyantly Fauvist. Even the short list of six is a thoroughly mixed bag. You couldn't find two more radically different painters than first- and third-prize-winners Paul Emsley and Wendy Murphy, or two more conflicting approaches to animal subjects: Emsley's fastidiously painted rhinoceros, perfectly poised in a smoky sepia space as distant from reality as a vintage photograph, and Murphy's cattle at a Welsh auction, slapped on in paint that might have been freshly scraped off the byre floor, and pressed up so close to the picture plane you can almost smell them. Both these painters are self-taught in the medium (Murphy bought her first water-based paints for this competition), but the trained watercolourists on the short list are equally diverse: in Jennifer McRae's second-prize-winning portrait of a man in the studio, the figure seems magically to coalesce out of a diffuse mass of organised blobs and splodges, while in Norman Sayle's third-prize-winning moonlit landscape, the competition veteran and modern master of the flat wash achieves his usual deep velvety marriage between paint and paper.

Not all the entries meet the selection criterion of 'imaginative or otherwise impressive use of the medium'. There are a few too many predictable landscape subjects -French vegetable markets, Parisian corner shops and such - but refreshingly little plodding topography. Watercolour is capable of so much more than this, as Girtin and his young friends discovered two centuries ago when whiling away the long hours of candlelight by painting landscapes inspired by poetry. As an imaginative medium, nothing equals its lightness of touch; it can even tell jokes, as proved by Murphy's 'Moo'dy', a picture whose humour would be hopelessly laboured in oils.

Watercolour deserves the revival it seems to be enjoying; all it needs now is to consolidate its position with a rise in price. With modern advances in the manufacture of pigments and papers, the old arguments about its impermanence won't wash, and they become downright discriminatory in an art market where house paint is accepted currency. When so much contemporary art is about the ephemeral, can collectors really complain if the medium is the message? The time has come for watercolourists to capitalise on a reputation for living dangerously: it may put off the nervous investor, but it's the medium's main selling point to the new generation. Younger artists no longer view watercolour as stuffy, says Jennifer McRae: 'They see it as an exciting medium to use - it appeals to them because it's wild, quick and spontaneous.' Wendy Murphy confirms that she has been won over by what she calls its 'serendipity'. The thing about it, says McRae, is that 'you never know how it will behave, or if it will'. Today, its bloody-mindedness may be its greatest strength. In a conceptual art market overfull of ready-made ideas, there can be no better standard-bearer for the creative principle of 'meaning through making' than an unpredictable and capricious medium that insists on making up its meanings as it goes along.

The Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is at the Mall Galleries, London until 21 September; Leeds City Art Gallery 26 September to 9 October; Manchester Town Hall 15-25 October; and Royal Birmingham Society of Artists 11-24 November.