Comparing Watercolor, Aquatint & Oil Paint During the Romantic Period

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  • 0:00 Romantic Techniques
  • 0:44 Watercolor
  • 1:53 Aquatint
  • 2:55 Oil Painting
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the three Romantic media of watercolor, aquatint, and oil paint and discover how each was used to create distinct emotions. Then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Romantic Techniques

Welcome to the 19th-century online art academy. And your artistic training begins…now. Today we are focusing on Romanticism, an intellectual movement that stresses imagination and freedom of expression.

Romantic painters were noted for their devotion to the sublime, a mixed feeling of awe and terror at immeasurable greatness. For example, your imagination is limitless. But, if we allow it to be completely free, then we open it up to nightmares, delusions, and dark thoughts. Awe-inspiring, but terrifying as well. So, how did Romantic painters capture something so complex? Well, that's what we're here to teach you - technique.


Put that oil paint away. People tend to think of this time period and immediately think oil paints, but that was not the only medium being used. Romantic painters began experimenting heavily with watercolors, paints made from pigments mixed with water. Romantic painters very commonly painted landscapes, using the natural power of the wilderness to capture that sense of the sublime, and watercolors emerged as a very useful medium. You see, the light, almost transparent quality of watercolors has a naturalistic appeal that is especially good for painting things like clouds or water.

Painting by Thomas Girtin

Just look at what Thomas Girtin managed to do with watercolors. Girtin, an English painter of the late 18th century, is often credited with being the first true Romantic watercolor painter, using the soft feel of the medium to still create dramatic landscapes. The absolute master of watercolor, however, was John Constable.

Stonehenge, by John Constable
Stonhenge, by John Constable

His Stonehenge is widely regarded as one of the greatest watercolors ever. See the bold contrasts of light and dark? Do you feel that mixture of inspiration and foreboding? This is what the sublime looks like in watercolor.


Nice work with the watercolors, but you need to know more than that to survive in the Romantic period. Will you stop reaching for those oil paints? In fact, for this next technique, you're not going to be painting at all. Next we are learning aquatint, a style of printmaking in which a copper or zinc plate is used to create tonal variations. In other words, you can create various shades of color.

Aquatint uses powdered rosin, a solid resin, on etched plates pressed through a printing machine to create images. This is what that looks like.

An example of aquatint
Example of aquatint

Francisco Goya was one of the greatest Romantic masters of aquatint, which he used to make dozens of images. This one is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, part of his series of prints called Los Caprichos. Can you see the various tones of ink here?

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

This gives the print more depth and a dramatic, ominous feel. Here's another one of the Caprichos, called Can't Anyone Untie Us?. This was a new level of printmaking in the late 18th century, and Goya used it to superb effect.


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