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Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate's new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium's versatility and power

Historically, watercolour has been perceived as the medium of the dabbling amateur. Children, ladies and gentlemen of leisure have all been drawn to its cheapness, speed and apparent ease. Its subjects, too, have tended to be minor in size and scope: a domestic scene here, a botanical drawing there, stretching at most to a charming landscape. When professional artists use watercolour, so the grand narrative goes, it is to make preliminary sketches, try-outs, what-ifs that are supplementary to the real business of art, which involves painting in oils.

Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition, entitled simply Watercolour, aims to unsettle these easy assumptions. If painting in watercolour really is irredeemably minor, then how to account for the haunting visions of William Blake, the proto-modernist landscapes of JS Cotman, key symbolist work by Edward Burne-Jones, Paul Nash's hellish war paintings, Edward Burra's grotesqueries, not forgetting some of Tracey Emin's more affecting pieces? And what about JMW Turner, who frequently used watercolour not as a medium in which to rehearse, but rather as the best way to convey his finished vision? Look again at his Blue Rigi of 1842 and you see not just a perfect rendering of the play of light on water, but also an essay in the essential qualities of his chosen medium. Broad layers of pale colour have been washed in to create an ethereal translucency impossible to imagine in dense, sticky oil.

What initially drew amateurs to watercolour, though, was not Turner's virtuoso example so much as the fact that it was convenient and cheap. To make your mark all you needed to do was add water to a concentrated cake of pigment bound with gum arabic and let your brush do the rest. By the middle of the 19th century, companies including Reeves and Winsor & Newton would sell you charming little boxes primed with six essential shades, exactly the kind of thing that the young Queen Victoria was rumoured to take with her when she ventured en plein air. And for those who felt confident, there was always the option to fiddle with the formula. Professional painters stirred in egg yolk to make tempera, achieving the kind of long-lasting finish employed by medieval artists working directly on vellum and plaster. Others preferred to add white pigment or chalk to make gouache, a denser paint that mimicked the opacity of oil but retained the fluidity of water.

Technically, the Tate's curators say, anything can be used to make a watercolour. Paul Sandby, working at the end of the 18th century, added crumbs from his burnt breakfast roll to achieve a rich brindle. In our own times, Andy Goldsworthy has used pulverised red stone from the river bed of Scaur Water in Scotland to produce his pooling Source of Scaur; and in her delicate abstracts the young artist Karla Black experiments by mixing water with Vaseline, toothpaste and hair gel.

This makes watercolour sound facile whereas in fact it is versatile. It can be applied in a loose, diluted wash to paper that is already damp – a technique known as "wet on wet" – to produce the palest tint. Or it can be used almost dry to make a broken line that scrapes along textured paper. It can be "lifted off" – blotted out with a rag while still damp – or "scratched out" when already dry. In both cases the aim is to reveal and incorporate the whiteness of the paper underneath. Cotman's unfinished study of Rievaulx Abbey (1803) uses lifting off to depict a smudge of barely-there foliage, while 80 years later Walter Langley employs scratching out in his But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep to create tiny stray hairs on the heads of the two women whose anxious presence dominates the picture.

Turner and Cotman belonged to the period known as the golden age of British watercolour, which spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Under the romantic spell of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a generation of young artists turned away from composing historical and biblical scenes in the studio to face their native landscape head on. Urged to paint directly from nature, they climbed in Snowdonia or clambered over the Yorkshire Dales before setting up their easels in the open air. This was where watercolour showed its special virtues: easily carried in a pocket, it was in a sense contiguous with the landscape itself. All you need do was scoop some water from a mountain stream to release a flood of colour on to the page.

As they straggled up and down the country, these young painters were continuing a long tradition of recording landscape in watercolour. For centuries "stained drawings" had been the approved means for antiquaries, topographers and military men to map the lie of the land. Now a new generation started to use the full potential of the medium to add an extra dimension. Sandby's Part of the Banqueting Hall of the Royal Palace at Eltham shows a draughtsman's discipline in the way it delineates the ruined palace's arched windows and steeply pitched roof. But Sandby also uses his skills as a consumate colourist to show the differing textures of brick, stone, wood and foliage. His decision to add a group of figures adds a present-ness to the scene which reminds the viewer that this is no mere map-maker's exercise. Meanwhile, Thomas Girtin's Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland (ca 1797) is a vertical wall of stormy stone and ruined fortifications. High above the scene glowers a sky of operatic intensity, all scudding clouds and sudden bursts of sunlight. Anyone who doubted that watercolour was able to achieve intimations of the sublime so central to the romantic project had only to look at what Girtin – who died at a melancholy 27 – achieved here.

But even these peaks of achievement did not impress the Royal Academy, which, since its early days in the 1770s, had insisted on disparaging watercolour as the preserve of drawing masters, illustrators and amateurs. Indeed, for several years landscape art had been entirely banned from the academy's annual exhibition, since mere "transcripts" from nature could hardly be expected to occupy the same sanctified space as carefully constructed historical or biblical scenes. Such a mindset must explain why exquisite work by William Capon, who rendered the streets of late-Georgian London in fresh, delicate colour, seems to have been regarded as useful documentary rather than bona fide art. Even when the academy did admit watercolours to its exhibition walls, it did so grudgingly, crowding them together in dark corners where they appeared to sulk.

By the early 19th century artists who worked mainly in watercolour developed their own clubs, cultures and marketing strategies. From the start there was something inherently middle class about the whole enterprise. Watercolours tended to be both small in size and polite in tone, making them ideally suited to the wall of a suburban sitting room. There was less embarrassment, too, about the need for artists to make a sale. Buyers who saw something they liked hanging on the exhibition wall could simply put down a deposit before returning several days later to carry off their purchase under their arm.

Luckily there were always painters with sufficient confidence or cheek to pay no attention to the rules, whether old or new. William Blake, who worked in watercolour, simply showed his work at home. Turner, who used both watercolour and oils, hung both media side by side in his own Harley Street gallery. Meanwhile, a new generation of painters, including several of the pre-Raphaelites, pointedly ignored expectations about what watercolour could and couldn't do. In 1864 Edward Burne-Jones caused a storm when he exhibited The Merciful Knight at the Old Water Colour Society. The greybeards hated the archaism of Burne-Jones's dense application of scumbled and rubbed watercolour, designed to mimic the tempera techniques of early renaissance painters. In an echo of the Royal Academy's early high-handedness, the OWCS hung The Merciful Knight high up behind the door, in the hope that no one would see.

This radical reimagining of watercolour by Burne-Jones and others meant that by the beginning of the 20th century the medium had lost any sapping associations with sentimentality. Around 1927 the architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, then living in the Pyrenees, made a wonderful watercolour of the village of Fetges which draws on his art nouveau heritage to produce a picture of piercing clarity and strong structural rhythm. Ten years later Edward Burra was using watercolour to very different effect, rendering the interior of a Mexican church in bloody, muddy tones complete with an agonised Christ. It was a world away from Victorian ladies and their flower drawings.

Even when watercolour artists of the 20th century did consciously look back to the golden age, it wasn't simply an exercise in comforting nostalgia. What fascinated John Piper and Eric Ravilious in the interwar period was the way that painters such as Cotman and Girtin appeared so radically modern in their exploration of their chosen medium. Looked at this way, Cotman's landscapes of the early 1800s become more than simply exquisite renderings of natural forms. By massing colours into abstract blocks rather than striving after mere mimesis, the artist offers a self-conscious commentary on the possibilities and limits of watercolour. You can see some of that complexity recouped in Ravilious's 1939 painting The Vale of the White Horse, in which the chalk downlands of southern England have been simplified into rolls of colour, atop which sits the abstraction of the ancient cut-out horse. Piper, the closest thing the neo-romantics had to a spokesman, does something similar in his 1944 study of rocks in Snowdonia, where elements of the sublime so evident in the work of Girtin have been reworked into a sinister commentary on the breakdown of all natural forms, including the human body.

Many of their contemporaries followed Piper and Ravilious in using watercolour to capture the trauma of the 1940s. The qualities that had made the medium so useful to the landscapists of the golden age 150 years earlier – portability, cheapness, a certain tactful reticence – made it equally serviceable in a war zone. Nor was it only professional artists who noticed. Burra, exempted from service on account of his chronic ill-health, was concerned to learn in 1940 of a severe shortage of paintbrushes: apparently they had been bought up by servicemen keen to fill their long evenings under canvas. Indeed, it was one of these ordinary soldiers who produced perhaps the most startling image in the whole Tate exhibition. Following the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, Eric Taylor compiled a large graphic watercolour showing piles of ravaged corpses, their skeletal outlines made jagged by the artist's angry accents of colour.

These days watercolour seems to be making a virtue of its old reputation for quiet discretion. The later work in the exhibition shows contemporary artists using the medium to explore inner visions rather than outer spectacle. Tracey Emin's Berlin the Last Week in April 1998 is a delicate smudge of watery monochrome which wistfully recalls an intimate bath taken with a lover in a hotel room. In Eighty Three, Nicola Durvasula uses layers of watercolour to build up a stylised figure which seems to come from deep within the vocabulary of ancient Indian art. The twist, though, comes in the fact that the figure squats not on paper designed for watercolour but on a sheet torn out from a pre-ruled account book. The lines show through in a way that recalls the "wove" paper used by early watercolourists such as Samuel Scott in the mid 18th century. Finally there is the late Patrick Heron, who used gouache to paint his bold colour abstracts because, he insisted, water-based paint gave him a fluidity (and hence a subject: the materiality of his own art) that oils could simply never manage.

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February until 21 August. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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