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The 10 best watercolours

As Tate Britian reviews the history of the watercolour the Observer's art critic selects her 10 favourite paintings in the medium

1 David Hockney Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Leaning in close to the mirror, peering over the top of his glasses, Hockney stares so hard at himself his eyes are nearly glazed with looking. He is painting himself literally in the act. The brush, which he cannot see at this precise moment, is forming a line out of the very watercolour from which it is made. A blot of black has escaped. Hockney, virtuoso draughtsman, great technician in every medium from oil to print to coloured crayon, is challenging himself with quick-drying, no-corrections watercolour. The picture is almost life-size. Hockney is putting himself on the spot.

2 JMW Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Turner's sequence of watercolours, made as the Houses of Parliament burned down right before his eyes, is one of the great wonders of the watercolour world. An immense conflagration lighting up the sky, reflected in the Thames below, struts, towers and windows fleetingly visible among the flames, it's all dashed down in the heat of the moment. A contemporary described Turner 'pouring wet paint on to the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled in a kind of frenzy.' The brush movements are violent, the colour contrasts sudden: it's action painting, with the trickiest medium, long before the 20th century.

3 Arthur Melville The Little Bullfight, "Bravo Toro!" (c1892)

The Scottish painter Arthur Melville was one of the supreme watercolourists of his age, specialising in wet-on-wet paintings in brilliant melting colour. But sheer range may have stymied his reputation. Venetian nights, desert days, cabbages in Greenock, he moves widely in both subject and style. His quickfire watercolours of Parisian cabarets presage abstract expressionism, and here he focuses in and out of the scene like a cinematographer. High detail in the audience fades to a lacuna where the frenzy of death is taking place. Over and again, Melville seems like a real one-off.

4 William Blake The Judgment of Paris (1811)

The Trojan prince Paris is forced to judge a beauty contest of goddesses. Fatally, he picks Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. Blake shows the moment at which he hands her the golden apple. Eros streams into the air, apparently elated, but above him black Discord unfurls with flames in his hands. The bodies are lithe, liable to levitate with their transparent limbs. Shape-shifters, sky-divers, wraiths, Blake's figures are always superhuman. The look is strenuous, yet each figure is airy, a figment of outline and wash that lives in the page. This is a rare watercolour; most of Blake's images became prints.

5 Eric Ravilious The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1935)

Any watercolour by Eric Ravilious deserves its place here, but this one shows what a world the medium can make in and of itself with transparent colour and a sheet of paper. Ravilious's greenhouse has the atmosphere of a dream. Everything is in perfect order, yet there is no sign of a gardener, unless perhaps God? Door opens on to door, on to door. The perspective is pristine, the painting so clear, light and symmetrical in both form and content, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunlight. It is the greenhouse from paradise. Ravilious is the lost genius of British art: his plane crashed over Iceland during the second world war. His body was never found.

6 Alexander Cozens A Blot: Tigers (c1770-80)

Colour suspended in water: potential for endless accidents as the water seeps or spills or the brush is overloaded. Alexander Cozens found form in these mishaps. Out of accidental blots, random images would begin to emerge which Cozens would then develop using grey or brown wash. Mostly these messes resolved into imaginary landscapes, but here he saw powerful animals, crouching, dormant, their force momentarily contained. Others might have seen something else. The power of Cozens's art lies in its inchoate shapes and energies, its multiple possibilities. The artist was said to be the illegitimate son of Peter the Great.

7 Samuel Palmer Cornfield by Moonlight (c1930)

Palmer's "moonlight" paintings all look as if they must be visions, with their radiant moons and glimmering stars, but in fact they are intensely particular about reality. The man with the smock, dog and staff is pausing among avenues of sheaves cut sharp as straw, with the rolling hills around Shoreham in the distance. Light is the main protagonist, binding landscape and man snugly together, and the atmosphere is reverential; look close and you will see a tinier world of detail praised in the rich surface. Palmer was inspired by Blake, among others, and founded an early avant-garde movement known as the Ancients.

8 John Sell Cotman Greta Bridge (c1807)

Cotman had been staying at Rokeby Hall (once home of Velázquez's Venus). The bridge across the river Greta was in one corner of the park, and Cotman drew it over and again. But in watercolour he gives it an almost ethereal beauty. Everything is held still and in perfect equipoise – the sky above, the river below, the bridge a pale platonic ideal over the silver water. Nature as abstract, geometric, all detail omitted, the painting is a feat of control and tonal delicacy. Cotman's colours got brighter, and he would later enrich them with rice paste, but this picture, made when he was 25, is surely his greatest work.

9 Gwen John Girls in a Church (c1920)

Gwen John moved to the village of Meudon outside Paris in 1911. There she began to go to church services at a local convent. The watercolours she made of children and nuns, and of the relationships between them and the words of the service, are some of her most sensitive and private paintings. This one is a hazy moment of youthful concentration, the girls as soft and mute as the air around them. John usually sat at the back sketching in pencil, washing in the paint afterwards in the studio, but this one is entirely formed of watercolour. She painted in this church for 20 years.

10 Isaac Oliver A Man Against a Background of Flames (c1600)

What a concept: the living man against a wall of death, his mind (and desires) on fire. The sitter's identity is not known, but his character is all there in the acute face, the tousled locks, the shirt open to the waist as he presents his locket, and his feelings, in the heat of passion. Painted by the French-born Oliver on a piece of vellum no bigger than a baby's palm, using squirrel-hair brushes delicate enough to describe the finest stubble, this watercolour is far bigger than its scale. A fiery keepsake, condensing portrait and love poem, it's the equivalent of an Elizabethan sonnet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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