When is a Watercolor no Longer a Watercolor?

Q. I read an article in one of my art magazines about painting over watercolors with a polyacrylic glaze, and therefore avoiding the need to frame the piece behind glass. I’ve done this with great success (no running of the colors, believe it or not!) My question is this: Does sealing your watercolor in this manner ruin the value of the painting as a piece of art? Would a watercolor “purist” reject it because it’s not in its natural state? Would a watercolor piece be accepted in a gallery or museum if it were sealed with a coat of polyacrylic glaze instead of glass?

A. First, you must determine if you want the polyacrylic glaze to be part of your art, or to serve merely as a substitute for glass. If your motivation is to save money on glass, you should consider what you’re trying to achieve. My take is that both watercolors and soft pastels are meant to be presented under glass in a frame, relieved from the glass by either a mat or float in order to protect their fragile surface from hands, dust and the like. It’s just the nature of both media.

So yes, you have changed the nature of watercolor if you coat it with polyacrylic glaze. If your goal is to incorporate the glaze into the painting process—to make it part of your art, that’s fine, and more power to you in perfecting your craft. But you should realize that what you’ve done will most likely be considered “mixed media” artwork, not watercolor. That helps answer your question about the watercolor purists.

As for the value of a piece coated with polyacrylic glaze, I’m sure many galleries will love to look at this kind of “sealed” approach. But, again, they’ll probably look at the glaze as part of the artwork. A traditional gallery that leans towards representing watercolorists within the traditional style might frown on this approach.

Why don’t you test the waters yourself? I would advise anyone trying a new approach or technique to do this. Talk to some galleries. Bring your work into galleries where you think your work will fit in. Ask questions. How do you know if they’ll accept it, unless you try? Check out some of the watercolor societies that are known as watercolor purists. Watercolor West would be a good one to contact (Watercolor West, P.O. Box 213, Redlands CA 92373; E-mail: watercolorwest@watercoloronline.com). This group accepts only transparent watercolors in their annual shows. You could write and ask them what they think about your process. It sounds as if you have a very interesting and exciting technique that you love doing. My suggestion is to network and take some risks with your work. The worst thing that could happen would be that galleries or museums would say they aren’t interested. Ask them why if they aren’t, and then move on to the next gallery and museum. Don’t stop pursuing what you believe in!

Award-winning artist Kevin Macpherson studied art at Northern Arizona University and the Scottsdale Artist’s School. He’s past president of the Plein Air Painters of America, a member of the American Impressionist Society and a master honorary signature member of the Oil Painters of America. An active workshop instructor, Macpherson is the author of Fill Your Paintings With Light and Color (North Light Books) and is a columnist for Southwest Art magazine. A resident of Taos, New Mexico, he’s represented by the Jackson Kirkland Gallery (Santa Fe, New Mexico) and the Shriver Gallery (Taos), the Redfern Gallery (Laguna Beach, California) and Greenhouse Gallery (San Antonio, Texas).

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