Why Art Investors Should Avoid Watercolour Paintings

Why Art Investors Should Avoid Watercolour Paintings

turner371.jpgI was going through an art auction catalogue the other day when is spotted a beautiful painting by one of my favourite artists, John Glover (English born Australian landscape artist 1767-1849) which to my surprise was listed with an estimate of only AU$10,000-AU$15,000 which is drastically lower than the AU$100,000 which his larger paintings usually sell for. On further inspection I realised that the painting in the auction catalogue was a watercolour which explained the lower price but also got me thinking about why it is that watercolour paintings sell for less than oil or acrylic paintings. After extensive research and analysis I came up with the following reasons for watercolour paintings being less popular and less valuable than oil or acrylic paintings:

-Watercolour was originally by artists used for sketches, cartoons, drawings and other preparatory/trial work for their more highly regarded oil paintings.

-Watercolour is a more difficult medium to master.

-Watercolour paintings are more susceptible to damage because of the transparent pigment which is prone to fading and because they are executed on fragile paper.

-Watercolour was regarded as more of an industrial form of art and was widely used in applications related to architecture, design and planning.

-Watercolour did not suit the large scale, vibrant and bold art of the abstract art movement and thus became even less popular.

-Watercolour is known as the amateurs medium because it is convenient, easy to work with and the technique used to paint with watercolour is comparatively simple (although difficult to master)

For these reasons I would suggest that anyone looking to invest in art avoid watercolour paintings unless they are by one of the masters of watercolour such as Turner (image above is a watercolour by turner)

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

23 Responses

  1. Due to their cheaper price, could watercolours be a good place to start for an artist?

  2. I agree. Water colour done well, can be stunning – but it has to be looked after carefully. I never understand why so many amateurs start with classes in this medium. It is very unforgiving and hard to learn, and that is probably why every church hall fete is drowned in awful paintings of local scenes…. But that’s not to say that they are worthless. All power to those that try! But for the investor, it’s a different story.

  3. Hi Lewis,

    Thanks for the comment. It is a shame that the watercolour medium has attracted a bad name but at least artists like Turner give watercolour artists something to aim for.

    Nicholas Forrest

  4. well… i am an artist myself and i disagree
    with all the reasons you listed – first of all to me it does not sound like you really did an “extensive”
    research and analysis, cause any artist would give you these same reasons immediately along with a few others,
    sorry no offense, let me comment :

    first of all 2 of the reasons you give contradict each other – you say it is a hard medium to master but then
    easy to use LOL – in fact this should be one of the reasons it should cost higher than oils, as it is much
    harder to master and examples of great works are more rare…

    secondly some points were probably good for the times when Turner and earlier artists were
    alive – when watercolors in deed were used mostly for sketches and industrial/design forms of work…
    Nowadays i would say people are more curious about the “sketches” of Leonardo than the actual result of his work,
    cause people would like to see how things were done and the way he was thinking – and would you agree –
    that should cost something…

    while yes – abstract expressionists probably preferred oils – do not mislead your readers by omitting Paul Klee and
    Kandinskiy, who used watercolors extensively… I am sure Klee’s watercolors are not exactly cheap!
    There are a few contemporary artists who work in watercolors as their major medium and on large scale –
    one of them that comes to my mind on the spot is Brian Murphy – look him up on google…

    also i would not say that watercolors are so much more fragile than oils – i would say it is much easier to
    damage an oil actually, that are largely subject to fading, cracking and other unexpected surprises too…

    My point is: yes – for some reason watercolors cost less and probably not a good investment but you did not
    answer the question why, i think you are using a “consumeristic” way of thinking here – trying to approach this
    question from the economical point of view, i think that the answer could be hidden in the cultural reasons –
    answer the question why mentally people are less impressed with watercolors to value them higher than oils
    despite the fact it is a much harder medium and you will be able to tell us the true reason why we should
    not invest in watercolors.

  5. Thanks for your comment Alexei, I appreciate your point of view but the fact remains that watercolour paintings do have a stigma attached to them for the reasons that I outlined in my post. Although the factors that I listed in the post may not apply to all watercolour paintings they to apply to a majority which is unfortunately enough to effect the whole medium.

    Nicholas Forrest

  6. watercolour pigments used to be ‘prone to fading’, but modern research and testing, coupled with a careful selection of colours used, means that this isn’t really a problem..
    however people should know that a watercolour shouldn’t be hung in direct sunlight or damp conditions..

  7. @ Alexie, I agree with you.

    Oils can crack if the artist doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

    And poor canvas makers.

    If an artist uses expensive products or well branded artist paints/ products, then there won’t be a problem.

    The grades of paper should be taken in to account as well.

    Art Collectors are not fools and they know what to look for if they are serious collectors.

    I can’t see there being a problem at all and water colour paintings should not get bad publicity.

  8. Hello, everybody!
    what a bug “eat” a watercolor – not a paper, but only watercolored paper’s surface?
    5piece of my original works I found with the big traces after these “dinner”…a paper is not damaged! Someone of these damaged works are restored, but not all…:-(((((
    OK, genuine watercolors are made with a natural beeshoney. But how were possible preserved the watercolor’s work?
    You can see an example of my watercolors(tagged) at artbistro.com/nfs/artbistro/photos/0132/5492/aquar_web.jpg

    thank you for respons!
    have a peacefully time!

  9. Dude! Don’t tell people not to invest in watercolor. You are perpetuating some old myths and stereotyping a single medium.

    Watercolors are less vulnerable to damage than paintings on canvas as they are generally behind plexiglass. Some of the oldest art known to man is watercolor. Some of the best too. The Cistine Chapel ceiling is essentially a watercolor on fresh plaster.

    Watercolors can and should fetch as much money as a comparable oil painting.

    Please don’t perpetuate this travesty.

  10. Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. It is a shame that watercolours sell for less but the fact remains that they do and I can’t see this changing any time soon although I sincerely hope it does

  11. I think all the points mentioned pro and con are valid. What I’d like to know is if collectors are buying solely on re-sale potential, or because they enjoy the painting. As a watercolourist, I think agree that watercolour is definitely the little brother to other mediums. In approaching galleries to represent my work, by far contemporary art is the subject matter of choice and they typically are VERY large acrylic or oil works.

    Watercolour is also typically representational where as contemporary typically registers on a more emotional level. What i enjoy, is when you do come across a collector of watercolour, they really know their stuff and the conversation is invigorating.

    Great blog Nicholas.

  12. I’ve worked professionally as an artist for years…and strangely enough, I began with oils. I’ve since switched to watercolor which are indeed harder to master, but are equal to oil in their resilience and beauty.

    As a teacher I disagree that watercolor is the “amateur’s” medium. I find most of my students are acrylic users before they learn to use watercolor or oil paints. Acrylic seems to fill the gap of craft and commercial artists in the same way that watercolor did in the past.

    I think that one thing that you missed in your extensive analysis is the paper vs. canvas question. Oil paintings on paper also go for less than those created on canvas. Food for thought….

    best regards.

  13. Hi Paul, I would have to agree with your article on the watercolours. I am a contemporary artist and must say that working with watercolours is not easy as such, but it is clearly easier then say working with oils. Hence the price differences are justified in my mind at least.

  14. It seems that what people are saying is that in general, working with watercolours is easier than working with oils when the work being created is not highly detailed or extremely complex. When it comes to minute detail and high complexity, however, oil paint is easier to work with than watercolours because it is much more stable and controllable. To master watercolour painting is to be able to create detailed and complex works that rival those able to be created with oil paint


  15. Hi Nick,

    Some fascinating comments re w/c values/durability, right on all sides I reckon!
    When I went to collect an 1820’s portrait of 6th duchess Bedford’s three daughters (believed by Landseer, scandalised father of youngest) from a local (Devon, England) auction house it had ‘dissapeared’, I accepted a very different trio of females in substitute, an impossibly rare group portrait of the Bronte sisters. In immaculate preservation apart from brittle edges and loss of white body h/light, and of incredibly infinite detail, (8mm eyebrow/5mm lashes constructed of single hairs) the lower retro carries instructions: ‘DO NOT use cleaning liquid. Haip Glazed.’ Would love to send image if I knew how! Bears monogram E.L. (Landseer) and indistinct date 1838. Bronte Attribution agreed by experts, but do not know what ‘haip glaze’ is, though it works. Can you help?
    Best wishes to you an all, James, Debbmzhire.

    • Re:1838 date. The painting purported to be an 1838 portrait of the Bronte sisters could not have been painted before the late 1840s or early 1850s. The women’s clothing/hair style dates to that period.

    • There seems to be odd bits of numbers and letters on the portrait. Have you any further clues about the painting in any of these markings?

  16. Nick
    Engaging discussion, and I’m not even a watercolorist.

    Nevertheless, I would not advocate against collecting watercolors on the basis of any of the points you make in your original post.

    First, there is an active and ongoing knowledgeable collecting public for all works on paper. The points you’ve made about fading, fragile paper, and preparatory (i.e. lesser) works apply equally to drawings, pastels, and even serials (prints) as they do to watercolors. However, while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the brilliant crimson of the Rothko oils at Harvard University faded to pink within a decade. And the newly-invented iodine scarlet pigment (suspended in oil) Turner used in his 1839 painting of the Fighting Téméraire (at the Tate) started out as a flaming red and within a few years had faded to a dull iron-brown. The history of painting, even contemporary art, is littered with failed media experiments.

    The collecting public for works of art discounts for condition, regardless of the medium, and obviously no one wants to be stuck with a work that has lost its “luster.” Care is required for all works of art, and paper can an incredibly long time mounted on acid free board and framed behind UV glass. We still have Leonardo drawings executed nearly 500 years ago and illuminated manuscripts (even older) because people knew how to take care of them. . .

    Thus, I’m not sure advising people not to collect simply on the basis of the fragility of the substrate or the ephemeral nature of the medium holds any water.

    Further, despite most Ab-Ex’s eschewing watercolor, there is still a collecting public for the medium and lovely, if not sublime, examples to collect from all periods. Certainly the market for watercolors is a smaller one than the one for oils, but what really matters to most collectors (at least the ones I’ve spoken to) is, first, that they really covet and enjoy the piece and, second and less importantly, they have a reasonable expectation the work will appreciate. You may argue that oils appreciate on a whole more quickly; I don’t have any figures for that.

    Additionally, I would observe that there are hoards of amateur oil painters (some quite good, some pretty dreadful), which hasn’t hurt that medium much.

    And finally, we should recognize that watercolors are generally executed on a substrate smaller than works on canvas (whether oils or acrylics). Some of their lower pricing reflects this. The fair thing to do when comparing prices is to take roughly similar sizes of works by the same artist and note the differential.

    I appreciate you throwing this topic out there, clearly it’s sparked a lot of people to contemplate WHY.

    Best Liz Hager

  17. Liz

    A most thorough and intelligent analysis. I am a watercolourist for my sins and can assure all that it is not the easy option; a constant source of frustration, my studio floor is often littered with failures. With watercolour, there is little or no opportunity to paint over mistakes, unlike the opaque media. Every brush stroke remains for all to see.

    Longevity is not a problem as long as the best quality materials are used. The paper is anything but fragile. “Paper” is a bit of a misnomer as the best stuff is made from linen rag, ph neutral and therefore resistant to browning (the effect of acid in wood pulp in cheap papers) and incredibly durable.

    And the point that most of you have missed is that the pigments in watercolour are exactly the same as those used in oil paints, the only difference being the binders used. They are no more prone to fading than oils. The only difference is that oil goes yellow with time…

    In conclusion, I fear the perceived difference in value between watercolours and oils is purely down to long held prejudices and the common perception that watercolour is the medium for amateurs. The longevity argument doesn’t wash – fortunes have been spent on dead birds, used sanitary towels and bus tickets in the name of art.

    Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going back to my painting set. Five bob in Netto’s.

  18. watercolor is a viable media

    see http://www.dawnhawk.org

    before denigrating it…

  19. Water colour is a viable medium.
    1.Good quality materials are readily available.
    2.It is readily accepted that water colour is a difficult medium to handle, not an easy option.
    3.At its best contemporary water colour can be exciting ,vibrant,sensitive and liberating
    4.From an environmental point of view water colour paintings have less impact on our environment so in the long term may gain popularity from this angle.
    6.We should encourage the buying public or investors (are these not the same people) to use their own judgement when buying art.
    Incidentaly I am an artist. I paint in water colour acrylic and pastel.I make no differentiation between the priceing of my works but regularly sell more water colour and pastel than acrylic

  20. The paints differ between in cost yet the price of the palette says totally nothing about the value of the picture that reflects the light… People look at famous symbols, yet many remain deaf to the message beyond the picture – because they fall into the trap of discussions that lead them nowhere and blind them in their own reasonings, because the characteristics of the paints interest just a market, which goals are opposite to the light, that as enlightens our earthly path, as awakes the spirit of the beholder. Only that message from “beyond the picture” is worthy investments.
    Thus Watercolor or Oil? Personally I prefer the dreaming over a cup of coffee to musing about the paints.

  21. well i can’t find john glovers pictures

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