Like the fine art that has inspired its stylistic creation, Watercolor tattoos are usually beautiful, organic, graceful plays of color that use the skin as a canvas. Rather newly founded, the trend has since seen a lift due to artists that continue to push the aesthetic, methods, and concepts to new heights of ingenuity. In this guide, we research the origins, techniques, and artists most often found within the Watercolor style. We also examine the issue of healing and aging of fluid color pieces.
The Origins of Watercolor Tattoos
To be sure, the actual type of painting Watercolor tattoos stem from is practically primitive. In ancient times all pigments for painting were made from organic materials including earth substances like plants, minerals, animals, and the like. For instance, Bone Black comes from calcianated bones, Indian Yellow used to come from the urine of Indian cows fed only on mango leaves, Emerald Green is copper aceto-arsenite, which releases toxic arsenical fumes and has fortunately been replaced with synthetic compounds, and Carmine Red, although no longer used in watercolors, is made of crushed Cochineal insect shells. It is still often used in cosmetics and foods to this day. All of these pigments, and others, were each processed differently, depending on their chemical and physical make up, and were mixed with a binder, a type of glue substance that completed the paint mixture. The binder helped make the pigment paintable, but also bound it to the surface being painted. The first examples of watercolor painting may actually be traced to paleolithic cave paintings, however the first refined use of the medium is often thought to be the Egyptian papyrus scrolls. Later used for the Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages, watercolor painting did not see consistent and wide spread use until the Renaissance.
It is no surprise that due to the natural compounds of watercolor pigments, that it would lend itself well to natural illustrations. During the Renaissance many artists used these paints to create botanical pieces, popular not only for their beauty, but for their scientific uses as well. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, watercolors were often used by adventurers to capture the landscape and peoples of their journeys. The paints were relatively easy to use, very versatile, and traveled well. Although this may all seem completely disconnected to the contemporary Watercolor Tattooing style, the techniques and stylistic approaches are very similar to many of the artists working in that particular era. Artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, JMW Turner, John James Audubon, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and Eugène Delacroix are only a few painters who used watercolor and propelled it to the reputation of a serious arts material. Many of the skills these fine artists used are actually employed by watercolor tattooists as well, as the medium and techniques rather easily translates to skin.
Tattoo flash is also often painted with watercolor, as well as gouache, a more opaque form of the aforementioned paint. Due to the progress and work of past artists, some of whom are mentioned above, the lightfastness, quick dry clarity, ease of use, and brilliance of the pigments lends itself remarkably well to tattoo art. The watercolor tattoos we see today are, thankfully, created with more than the traditional red, blue, yellow, and green tints, but at the time flash and modern tattooing was getting its foothold, those were the pigments that aged best not only on paper, but on skin as well. During the late 19th and early 20th century, tattoo flash was making its rounds globally through peddlers, sailors, and artists alike. There was a huge demand for new and inventive designs, as well as a source for tattooists to share their portfolio. Watercolor flash was the quickest and easiest way to do it, and many of the flash sheets from those eras still exist and inspire today.
The Techniques and Artists of Watercolor Tattoos
However, although most tattoo artists used the watercolor medium to paint their flash, the stylistic differences between traditional artists and watercolor tattoo artists is immediately recognizable. Of course, the affectations and predilections of each artist will naturally guide their personal aesthetic, the artists who work within the watercolor tattoo style usually have many motifs in common. Tattooists such as Rit Kit and Pis Saro have an oeuvre that spans almost every type of flower known to man, and are reproduced in a stunningly realistic approach. Amanda Wachob and Jess Chen also often tattoo flowers, but also play with abstract concepts that tend almost to look literally like brushstrokes of paint or pastel on skin.
Zihee and Saegeem are to watercolor tattooists based out of Seoul that often replicate famous paintings by Monet, Elizabeth Keith, Matisse, and Degas with incredible accuracy. Since the impressionists, Fauvists, and Expressionists were all fond of brilliant uses of light and color, it’s no wonder that their pieces translate so well into watercolor tattoos. Other artists that work within a highly refined painterly style include Aimee Cornwell, Stephanie Brown, and Hannah Flowers. Their work, although missing the splashes of organic watercolor-esque abstraction, can also easily be mistaken for a simple painting on skin. While Stephanie Brown is wonderfully influenced by the likes of Sargent, Hannah Flowers pieces are infused with the Art Nouveau musings of Mucha and more. The graphic arts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco included, are well-known for their use of watercolor and gouache. Sasha Unisex is another watercolor tattooist who employs the technical approaches of the graphic arts as well, but in a much different style.
Issues of Aging With Watercolor Tattoos
Whether freehand, abstract, botanical portrayals, or perfect emulations of famed paintings, watercolor tattooists rely on the use of color and fluid technique for their work. The lack of black, however, is worrisome to many traditional tattooists who maintain that the use of thick lines keeps color from spreading. Over time any tattoo will age, and those who have had their ink for over two decades can attest to lines becoming softened or slightly fuzzy. Some watercolor tattooists have settled the debate by simply using a black “skeleton” as a sort of underpainting which helps keep colors in place. Others maintain that tattoo touch up is completely normal for any tattoo, watercolor pieces included, and that it really isn’t an issue. However, the reality is that traditional tattooists used a black outline on their work because the ink is carbon based. Once injected into the skin, the black carbon based ink becomes a wall keeping colors in, so the concern of spreading ink becomes a non-issue and the color stays put. Without that black carbon wall, colors used within the watercolor tattoo style tend to fade and disperse more quickly. But in the end, it’s a matter of personal choice, as it is with all tattoos. Regardless of the argument, the beauty of the aesthetic and designs is often hard to ignore.
With a foundation in the most ancient and refined of fine arts, used by famed painters and illustrators for centuries, watercolor tattoos are continuing a tradition most usually seen within the world of galleries and museums. But often that is what tattoo collectors are looking for; they use their skin as a walking canvas for highly skilled artisans. Remarkable in beauty and elegance, frequently highlighting the best that the natural world has to offer, watercolor tattoos are a trend not likely to see an end any time soon.