What is Modern Watercolor?


From a young age we learn to associate words with pictures.  So when I use the word watercolor an image most likely pops up in your mind.   But what if I told you there is more than one style of watercolor (and I’m not talking about landscapes, seascapes, and illustrations).   

Okay, wait what?  There are different styles of watercolor?  Yeah, I know it was mind boggling for me too!  Its kind of similar to Dance – there are different styles and different exceptions for let’s say ballet verses jazz or better yet lyrical.  Both are under the genre of dance but have very different expectations in their own unique style. 

The same is true for Watercolor.  Watercolor is the over arching style which can then be broken further and further into small categories.  The two I will be looking at today are Modern and Traditional (since these are in my opinion the overarching genres). 

Now before I get into this, I’m just gonna clarify this is my opinion and what I’ve observed between modern and traditional watercolor.  So getting that out there let’s jump into this…

In order to really get a good grasp on this subject, before we talk about how they are different…let’s first look at how they are similar. 


Traditional and Modern Watercolor have actually a lot of similarities.  

  1. SKETCH IS OF THE UPMOST IMPORTANCE – The first being that the overall SKETCH has to be good for the painting to be good. 
  2. WATERCOLOR PAINT is THE PRIMARY SUPPLY – Both artists would swear by there watercolor paints and compose nearly their entire painting with watercolor.  
  3. BASIC FOUNDATIONS ARE THE SAME – And finally, the third similarity is that the basic foundations of painting (or how you paint) are EXACTLY the same.


Now let’s get to the meat of this topic!  The controversial and heavily debated topic of Modern and Traditional Watercolor!  How are they actually different?


The first difference is in the artist’s supply kit itself.  One usually has a limited supply kit while the other is open to an assortment of items.  Can you guess which is which?

TRADITIONAL WATERCOLORISTS – usually paint with only watercolor – although some will use gouache but rarely. 

MODERN WATERCOLORISTS – usually have a large collection of INKS, GOUACHE, ACRYLICS, GLITTER, FOIL, basically whatever their heart desires.


The second difference is in the overall LOOKS of the paintings.  

TRADITIONAL WATERCOLORISTS – tend to rely heavily on reference photos due to their desire to capture the likeness of nature as it appears.   

MODERNIST WATERCOLORISTS – tend to be more EXPRESSIVE OR IMAGINATIVE in how they INTERPRET the world.   This DOESN’T mean modernist never use reference photos, it just means they are more likely to bend toward the expressive or imaginative side rather than the realistic. Similar to the poppy flower above.  It has a fun whimsical play (or interpretation) on the real thing.  


The third difference is in overall process of the painting itself.  

TRADITIONAL WATERCOLOR STYLE – tends to be less forgiving due to it’s transparent nature.  This means the artist either has to think quickly on their feet to prevent mistakes when they happen or think creatively to cover up mistakes after the mistake has dried.     

MODERN WATERCOLOR STYLE – on the overhand, while still challenging, allows the artist to use other paint mediums (such as acrylic, ink, or gouache) to hide mistakes.  By using opaque paint (or paint that you can’t see through very easily) an artist has a bit more wiggly room when mistakes occur.


If you’ve hung with me this far and aren’t to triggered, perhaps now you are wondering… “But Carrie, haven’t you just described MIXED MEDIA?”  Well, yes I actually have.   Mixed Media basically means you are using multiple different paints to complete a picture.  However, Mixed Media can encompasses multiple different genres – such as artist using mainly acrylic or oil as their primary supply source.    Modern Watercolor, as stated earlier, using watercolor as it’s primary supply.  This just helps narrow down the exact genre that the artist is painting a bit more.   So, I would consider modern watercolor a sub-genre of Mixed Media.   


Hmmm, I wonder which realm I land in?   If you haven’t already guessed it – I prefer Modern Watercolor.   And I honestly wish I had learned this knowledge sooner.   I’m basically a self-taught artist and the reason is because of this very subject.   As a college student, I did take a couple of painting classes from incredible TRADITIONAL WATERCOLORIST.  And while I wanted to add some sparkly gold to my paintings or ink lines – let’s just say they weren’t amused.


This is why I always thought of myself as a “Misfit in Watercolor.”  I liked to play around with different paints – add ink and acrylic paint when I made mistakes.  That was a HUGE NO! NO! to my teachers. 

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything from these teachers.  If anything they made my skills in watercolor even better.   I just always felt dissatisfied with my paintings when I was finished.    To me my paintings just didn’t reflect me and my personality as a painter.  So that is why I’m drawing this line in the sand now.   If you want traditional watercolor – you may find yourself really frustrated here – similar to how I was under a traditional watercolor teacher.   I learned a lot but ultimately didn’t feel like I was expressing who I was as an artist.  However, if you are interested in Modern Watercolor that’s my style and that’s what I teach best.  So come along for the ride through Mis-topia and join me on this whimsical Watercolor Journey.

If you would like to watch the video on this topic, make sure to click below! Oh and for any of the doubters – that I made up this term Modern watercolor… check out the link below from an art supplier ;)

About Author

Hi there! My name is Carrie and I'm a Watercolor Misfit! What's a Watercolor Misfit? Well, anyone who is willing to try new things and not afraid to get their hands covered in paint! So what do you say, are you a Misfit-ian?

1 Comment

    October 23, 2019 at 8:33 am

    Carrie, I just ordered 20 colors of watercolor. I am well pleased with your choices of color. There is so much gigo telling us how to make our paint granulated for texture; I hate granulation. Your approach to painting modern is perfect for me. You are giving me so much and now I have hope of learning art. I did not understand why you were asking us for our color preference but now it makes so much sense to me. Thank you.


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