By Fred Hohler, Founder of The Watercolour World

Take a look at the images on The Watercolour World (TWW) website, and you may soon find yourself wondering whether, as the pre-camera visual record, the watercolour is not in many ways its superior. Photographs being for the next 50 years mostly in black and white, your answer might be obvious. Myself, I don't know the answer, but generally I find the documentary watercolour genre, in simple terms, the more "telling". With visitor numbers to the TWW website approaching two million after less than two years, promoted only by word of mouth, lots of people clearly feel something similar.

There's a lot of technique in watercolour painting, and that needs to be taught. So, The Watercolour World, in cooperation with the Royal Academy of Arts and with funds provided by the Marandi Foundation, were delighted to offer their, and our, first ever topographical watercolour course. ‘Watercolour Week: Documenting the world’ ran from 2-6 September 2019.

Topographical watercolour is a unique genre. It is more immediate than an oil painting, more complete than a pencil sketch, more vivid and layered than a photograph. It is a skill that anyone can master and enjoy, yet the discipline is in danger of dying out as art schools around the world cease to teach it. Our initiative, we hoped, would be promote an interest in reviving it.

The week-long programme was designed to teach students the core skills of documentary watercolour painting, including draughtsmanship and perspective, architectural and figurative drawing, and the accurate reproduction of tone and colour. In addition to practical classes the course included lectures from experts in watercolour history and theory.

The course was for anyone with an interest in the history, theory and practice of watercolour painting, regardless of experience. We welcomed people with no prior artistic experience as well as those who sought to extend existing skills. The course was fully-booked and from the results and the feedback it was evident that we had started something that we could build on. Then COVID-19 appeared and the whole world changed.

As I write, COVID still plagues us all and we have no plans to restart this part of the TWW project. Hopefully, in time that will change. But to remind you what inspired not just the Watercolour Week, but the entire Watercolour World project, I've included below a selection of favourite topographical watercolours to inspire you:


Suspension Bridge of hide thongs (but repaired with chain) over the Maypu, five leagues south of Santiago, Chile, Jany 11th 1851, Edward Gennys Fanshawe. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Edward Gennys Fanshawe explored inland Chile in the winter of 1850-1851. To get between Santiago and Lake Aculeo he travelled in a light carriage drawn by three horses known as a 'birlocho'. Loose horses were driven alongside and regularly swapped in to pull the vehicle, so the animals did not tire too quickly. In this painting you can see Fanshawe's party crossing the River Maypu on a precarious-looking suspension bridge made of hide thongs.


Thebes, Statue of Oxymandius, [1834], Sir William Eden, 6th Baronet. Image courtesy of a private collector.

This painting depicts one of two colossal statues of Ramesses II from the Ramesseum near Luxor, Egypt. The second, known as 'The Younger Memnon', had been transported to the British Museum in 1818 and the publicity surrounding its arrival inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to pen his famous poem Ozymandias. Shelley's description of 'a shattered visage' 'half sunk' in the desert sands matches the toppled statue, which remains on the site to this day. Sir William Eden painted it during a trip to Egypt and Syria in 1834.


A watercolour painting depicting the external apparatus of a mine and smelter with smoke rising from the chimney stacks
Copper mining, view number 1, [ca. 1850-ca. 1860], unknown artist. Image courtesy of the State Library Victoria

When copper was discovered in South Australia in the 1840s, skilled workers from Cornwall, England, relocated to the area in their thousands and helped to develop a booming mining industry. It is not clear exactly where this painting was made, but it depicts the external apparatus of a mine and smelter which is clearly in use, with smoke rising from the chimney stacks.


A watercolour of a steep-sided valley in India. A steam train can be seen approaching on a railway cut into the side of the hill.

The ghats at Khandala, with mountain railway, 1878, William Robert Houghton. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The construction of a railway from Karjat to Pune was a huge feat of engineering. Tunnels had to be bored through basalt rock and the engineering team was plagued by bouts of cholera. It was completed under the supervision of James Berkley, Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. In this painting you can see two steam trains making their way along the railway, which cut into the side of the steep valley wall. Khandala today is a popular hiking spot on the route between Mumbai and Pune.


Published, February 2021