Andrew Wyeth Picks 20 Great American Watercolorists

American painter Andrew Wyeth | 20 best watercolorists | Artist Daily
American painter Andrew Wyeth at home. (Photo by Kirk Wilkinson/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Celebrating 100 Years — The Life and Art of Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth was first introduced to watercolor by his father, the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and by one of his father’s friends, Sid Chase. He immediately began looking at the work of great watercolorists from the past, especially American artists who “lifted watercolor from the academic approach of the British and made it something freer,” he explained.

Among the first historic artists to inform and influence young Wyeth was Winslow Homer (1836–1910), whose work he first saw when visiting Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine.

“I never wanted to copy the work of other people, but I wanted to find the truth in nature that they were expressing—and then find my own truth,” he is says in the book Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, by Susan Strickler (Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire). “So Homer led me on to something else. I got a direction that was authentic to me and to what I felt.”

As his interest in watercolor expanded, so did Wyeth’s awareness of other great artists who used the medium, particularly those who used it as freely and expressively as he did. He was especially interested in those who had developed a personal style and expanded their range of possibilities.

Wyeth met many of those artists, such as Edward Hopper, during trips to New York or summer excursions to Maine; and a number of others called on him in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

The enthusiasm that Andrew and Betsy Wyeth had for American painting is demonstrated through their foundation, The Wyeth Foundation for American Art. To this day, the Foundation provides substantial support for exhibitions, catalogues, research and acquisitions of American art.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
The Andrew Wyeth Forever stamp pane includes 12 stamps that feature details of different Wyeth paintings. First row, L to R: “Wind from the Sea” (1947), “Big Room” (1988) and “Christina’s World” (1948). Second row, L to R: “Alvaro and Christina” (1968), “Frostbitten” (1962) and “Sailor’s Valentine” (1985). Third row, L to R: “Soaring” (1942–1950), “North Light” (1984) and “Spring Fed” (1967), Fourth row, L to R: “The Carry” (2003), “Young Bull” (1960) and “My Studio” (1974). The selvage shows a photograph of Wyeth from the 1930s. ©2017 U.S. Postal Service.

Wyeth passed away in his sleep at the age of 91 on Jan. 16, 2009. Now, in honor of Wyeth’s 100th birthday, July 12, 2017, the U.S. Post Office is issuing a sheet of 12 stamps, for which each one features a detail of a different painting made by the artist.

To celebrate the life of such an incredible artist, read on for  Wyeth’s 20 top watercolorists he shared with former Artist Daily editor M. Stephen Doherty, who was visiting the artist at his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 2007, just two years before his death.

A List of 20 Top Watercolorists

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily
1. Milton Avery (1893-1965);  Tall Tree, watercolor, 1943, 22 x 30; private collection.

When I first proposed to Andrew Wyeth that he compose a list of 20 artists he thought to be among the greatest watercolorists, he considered both contemporary and historic practitioners.

“He’s concerned that limiting the list to historic figures would make it too short; and that adding contemporary painters would make it too long,” said his curator, Mary Landa. “He also worries about offending some good watercolorists he might not think about.”

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily
2. Charles Burchfield (1893–1967); Ravine in Summer Rain, watercolor, 1917, 22 x 17 1/2; Collection Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur F. Magill.

I suggested he focus on historic painters and consider a long list I put together. By the time I visited Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, back in 2007, he was feeling more confident about finalizing a list that would suggest to watercolor lovers what he felt was the hallmark of a great watercolor painting.

The final list of 20 great painters includes those who elevated the importance of watercolor and helped define a distinctly American attitude toward the medium, as well as artists who are less well-known yet offer a uniquely expressive approach to working with combinations of water-soluble paints.

3. Charles Demuth (1883-1935); Fruit and Sunflowers, watercolor over graphite on white wove paper, 45.7 x 29.8 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums. Louise E. Bettens Fund, 1925.5.3. Photo: Photographic Services © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The selection includes some obvious choices that would be on almost anyone’s roster—such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent—as well as artists like William Thon, Hardy Gramatky and Morris Graves, who reflect Wyeth’s age, experience and attitude.

Wyeth knew and admired several of the artists who shared his interest in expressive representation; and, in contrast, he felt no particular affinity with the abstract expressionists or the photo realists who painted in watercolor at roughly the same time he was working with the medium.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily
4. Arthur Dove (1880–1946); Study for Clam Shell, 1938, watercolor and ink on paper, 5 x 7. Private collection. Photo courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York, New York.

The point in formulating this list is to offer a broader view of watercolor than many people would associate with Wyeth. People often form the mistaken opinion that he gravitated toward the sentimental, pastoral or nostalgic.

However, a review of the vast number of watercolors he created since the late 1930s reveals he was often captivated by the power of nature, the transience of life, the juxtaposition of animate and inanimate forms, and the ability of watercolor to represent the soul of the artist. Those are often the qualities he admired in other artists’ paintings as well.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
5. Thomas Eakins (1844–1916); Seventy Years Ago, 1877, watercolor and gouache on cream wove paper with graphite border, 15 5/8 x 10 3/4. Collection Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey.

What’s clear is that no other contemporary artist has influenced the ways painters use watercolor as much as Wyeth did. His paintings have been so widely exhibited and reproduced over the past 60 years that almost every watercolorist has been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly.

This influence may come from direct experience, through teachers or fellow artists, or through collectors who measure every watercolorist against Wyeth.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
6. Hardy Gramatky (1907–1979); Holiday, 1976, watercolor, 19 x 27 1/4. Collection the estate of Hardy Gramatky.

Many artists have emulated the subject matter of Wyeth’s paintings, his palette of colors, his penchant for detail, his orientation toward personal themes or his willingness to express individual perceptions.

Anyone who has enjoyed such unprecedented success and had such a pervasive influence on generations of artists might be excused if he were arrogant, aloof, or remote. After all, celebrities in other fields are notoriously demanding.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
7. Morris Graves (1910–2001); Summer Bouquet (Pompom Poppy, Clematis, and Strawberry Flower), 1977, watercolor and tempera on paper, 12 x 11. Collection Esther and Charles Campbell

Despite his fame, wealth and influence, Wyeth remained throughout the years the same person he was when he mounted his first exhibition of watercolors in 1938 at the age of 20.

Still late in life, he was a personable, caring and appreciative man who was just as excited about the freedom afforded by watercolor as he was when his father first encouraged him to use the paints.

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
8. Childe Hassam (1859–1935); General Lee House, Richmond, 1925, watercolor, 8 x 10 5/8. Collection Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina. Arthur and Holly McGill Fund.

Even with a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an exhibition of his drawings at the Brandywine River Museum in 2006–just a few years before his death in 2009–Wyeth was still most excited when sitting on the ground with a stack of watercolor paper in his lap, brushes and paints laid out by his side, and a tree or a figure posing in front of him.

He made similar comments about his love for watercolor when writing about the paintings reproduced in a book titled Andrew Wyeth Autobiography (Bulfinch Press, New York, New York).

“The only virtue to it is to put down an idea quickly without thought about what you feel at the moment. It’s one’s free side. Watercolor shouldn’t behave,” he commented in reference to Half Bushel, a painting of a basket lying under an apple tree, created in 1959. “You’re in the lap of the gods—almost like painting with your eyes half-closed.”

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
9. Winslow Homer (1836–1910); Mink Pond, 1891, watercolor over graphite on heavy white wove paper, 13 7/8 x 20. Collection Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

In reference to another watercolor, Wyeth wrote: “Sometimes I don’t want to see too clearly. You build up a kind of color that is purely an interpretation of the truth. Anything to get away from the predictable. This applies to the design of a picture, too.”

After all, he continued, “Painting is all about breaking the rules. Art is chance.”

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
10. Edward Hopper (1882–1967); Highland Light, 1930, watercolor, 16 3/4 x 25 3/4. Collection Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts. William M. Prichard Memorial Fund. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Cheers to 100 years, Wyeth. Although you have been gone for almost a decade now, your art-filled legacy and passion for watercolor are eternal.

Peruse through the rest of Wyeth’s top watercolor artists, below, and be sure to let us know your favorites in the comments!

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
11. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986); Abstraction, 1916, charcoal and wash, 18 7/8 x 24 1/4. Collection Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina. Museum purchase with funds from The Museum Association, Inc.; Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Howard Suitt Jr.; Rich’s; and Mr. and Mrs. C.H. Abbe (by exchange).

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
12. John Marin (1870–1953); Mt. Chocorua No. 1, 1926, watercolor and charcoal on heavy white wove paper, 17 x 22. Collection Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts. William M. Prichard Memorial Fund. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
13. Reginald Marsh (1898–1954); Merry-Go-Round, watercolor and black crayon on wove paper, 26 7/8 x 40 1/4. Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of the Honorable William Benton. © 2006.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
14. Thomas Moran (1837–1926); The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, watercolor. Collection Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
15. John Pike (1911–1979); Overlook Mountain, 1970, watercolor, 20 x 24. Courtesy John Pike Art Products.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
16. Ogden Pleissner (1905–1983); Old Mill, Winchendon, Massachusetts, 1960, watercolor, 16 x 26. Courtesy Vose Galleries of Boston.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
17. Maurice B. Prendergast (1859–1924); The Mall, Central Park, 1900–1903, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 22 x 20. Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
18. John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); In a Medici Villa, ca. 1907, watercolor, 21 3/16 x 14 3/8. Collection Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York.

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
19. Millard Sheets (1907–1989); Boat Landing, Puerto Vallarta, watercolor, 22 x 30. Courtesy California Watercolor (www.californiawatercolor.com).

 

Top 20 Watercolorists | Andrew Wyeth | Artist Daily | Andrew Wyeth's 100 Year Birthday
20. William Thon (1906–2000); Spruce Woods, Winter, 1952, watercolor on paper, 21 x 29. Private collection.

If you love watercolor painting, then you’ll want to check this out (we promise!). This free e-book, How to Paint with Watercolors, is filled with practical, step-by-step techniques sure to have you painting in watercolor like a boss! Ready to level-up your skills?


*Article contributions made by former Artist Daily editor, M. Stephen Doherty

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