Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA was a British Romantic landscape painter, water-colorist, and printmaker. He lived during the age of Romanticism, 1775 – 1851.

The Romantic Era

The Romantic age was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. It was a revolt against the Industrial Revolution and the rigid aristocratic social and political norms and rationalism of the previous era, the Age of Enlightenment.


Strong emotion was added to the artistic experience, with new emphasis on creating a sense of awe, the kind experienced when viewing the beauty of untamed nature.


The power of imagination was harnessed to create art, music and literature in which one could escape the urban sprawl and industrialism that was polluting Europe. Freedom from classical notions of form in art opened the doors to Impressionism in the late 19th century, which became the precursor to Abstract Art of the early 20th century.


Watercolor Painting Evolves

Watercolors during the Romantic era, however were originally used for scientific or commercial purposes such as illustrating public works, depicting properties or geology as well as providing picturesque post cards for tourist journals.


J.M. William Turner, along with two other English artists, Paul Sandby and Thomas Girtin are credited with establishing watercolor as a fine art medium. Turner in particular brought watercolor painting to a height of refinement with his superb landscape paintings. He was prolific, producing around 20,000 watercolor paintings, many of which remain on permanent display in the Tate Gallery, London.


Turner’s method of layering vague color areas on wet paper, then refining the image with a sequence of washes and glazes, allowed him to create numerous paintings efficiently. He was known as “the painter of light”. However, Turner strove to capture more – he studied the moods of nature, storm, rain and fog as well as sunlight. According to British art critic, John Ruskin, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena.


Watercolor Organizations

The popularity of watercolors as a fine art medium sparked the formation of English watercolor painting societies such as the Royal Watercolour Society. The societies provided annual exhibitions and buyer referrals for many artists. In his later years, Turner would become an elected member of the Royal Watercolour Society.


Watercolor Product Innovations

Watercolor’s popularity stimulated innovations such as heavier or more heavily sized wove papers and brushes manufactured exclusively for watercolor painting. Commercial paint-making brands such as Winsor Newton® began packaging watercolor paint in metal tubes or as dry cakes that could be wetted with water both in the studio and in the field. Chemistry breakthroughs created many new pigments such as Prussian blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, cadmium yellow, zinc white and madder (alizarin) reds.

reeves elementary paint box 1800s tn

J.M. William Turner’s Background

The son of a barber, Turner received almost no general education. However, by age 14 he was already a student at the Royal Academy of Arts. Three years later he was making landscape drawings for magazines. By age 16, Turner began exhibiting his watercolors at the Royal Academy. He developed an astute sense for business, fostering a school of steel-plate engravers who made his work known through high quality publications. By 1799, the sale of his work freed him from the daily grind, and he devoted himself to the visionary interpretations of landscape for which he became famous.


Turner’s travels in Britain and abroad, and a highly trained photographic memory were the sources of his innumerable sketches from which he created his studio paintings. His remarkable ability to extract the essence of traditional landscape painting and elevate it to the levels demanded of the Romantic era allowed his paintings to transcend from mere picturesque pieces to works that inspire awe.

?Sketch for 'Dido Building Carthage' 1805 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

I hope this article has inspired you to learn more about this fine romantic-era painter and visit the galleries that display his beautiful work.


If you are ready to try your hand at romantic style watercolor painting, you might want to check out Intermediate Watercolor 202 at Pastimes For A Lifetime, Inc.  For enrollment and availability, email Jessica Lee Sanders.


Linda Wehrli is the founder/instructor at Pastimes For A Lifetime, Inc. She is committed to continuing lifelong learning, inspiring creative thinking and sharing her passion for art with others since 1989. Her school’s motto is: Confidence through Competence.


Special thanks to Jessica Lee Sanders for her research assistance with this article.

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