Watercolour and war

Watercolour has proved to be a highly practical and resilient technique for use in extreme situations, even under the conditions of war. Before the advent of photography it allowed for swift execution on the battlefield and was also employed in a scientific capacity to document trauma and injury to the body. 

Most of the works in this section were produced during the First and Second World Wars when watercolour was galvanised for documentary purposes by the Ministry of Information. Many display a tension between the demands of illustration and the underlying reality that artists felt compelled to represent. In order to convey experiences of shock and horror some made technical experiments by combining watercolour with denser materials such as chalk or crayon. Gothic or surreal conventions were also utilised for expressive ends. 

The development of new reproductive technologies – particularly photography and film – has led to a decline in recent times in the number of artists being employed in situations of war, especially as none of the conflicts involving Britain since 1945 has resulted in national art programmes on the scale of earlier schemes. But artists have explored other ways of expressing trauma, upholding watercolour as the ideal medium for communicating the limits of experience.