Director’s Letter

Our current exhibition, Drawing On The Past, consists of works on paper, namely drawings, watercolors, pastels and etchings. How are these various media defined and how do they differ from each other?


Drawing is a form of visual art produced by the artist where they use various implements to create an image, usually onto paper. A drawing can be produced with graphite pencils, pen and ink, colored pencils,crayons, charcoal, chalk, and markers. Today, many artists use electronic media to create a drawing.

For hundreds of years, drawing was a required discipline in European art academies. In addition to creating a unique work of art, drawing is also used to explore a potential subject for a painting. Here the drawing is not the final work, but rather a preliminary method of observation and problem-solving for a subsequent painting. This aspect of drawing is often called a “study” or a “sketch.”


Watercolor is a painting method in which the pigments are suspended in a water-based solution. The term “watercolor” refers to both the medium and the resulting artwork.

Watercolor is transparent,showing the pencil lines of the initial drawing.Watercolor is an ancient art medium. The paint used by Paleolithic people in cave paintings throughout Europe was water based. Also, the images in manuscript illustration dating to Egyptian times, but especially in the European Middle Ages, were also painted in watercolor.


Gouache is the opaque form of watercolor. The lines of the preliminary drawing do not show through. Today, gouache is used most consistently by commercial artists for posters, illustrations, comics, and other design work. It was used in the background paintings for most 20th-century animated movies.


Pastel artists use sticks consisting of pure powdered pigment. These pigments are the same as those used to produce oil paints and watercolors and are formed into a stick by use of a binder. Pastel is a time-tested medium that was used as early as the 1400s, in the Renaissance. During the 1700s,pastel became fashionable especially for portrait painting. With proper care, the colors of a pastel can remain strong and bright indefinitely.


Etching is one of the Graphic Arts, and as such is used to produce mul-tiple examples of a work of art. Etching uses a strong acid to cut into the surface of a metal plate, usually of copper, to create incised lines in the metal. The plate is prepared by coating all surfaces with a waxy material,called the etching ground that is resistant to acid. The artist then draws the design by scratching through the ground with a pointed tool where he or she wants lines to appear in the finished piece. The plate is then immersed in acid, which slowly eats through the exposed lines on the plate. As the artist draws new lines, the old lines are again exposed to the acid and become deeper, thus darker than the newer lines. When finished, the plate is stripped of its waxy coating. Ink is applied onto the plate, allowing it to penetrate into the acid-eaten grooves of the design. The surface ink is cleaned off and plate and paper are run through a press. The press forces the paper into the inked grooves, thus creating the image. The printing process also results in an impression of the edges of the plate and is characteristic to identifying an etching. The printing process reverses the image, a fact that must be taken into consideration when the artist first draws the lines.

— Jean Stern, Executive Director of the Irvine Museum Collection at UCI
This article appeared in the Summer/Autumn 2018 Newsletter

To view the mediums in action make sure to visit the exhibition, running now to October 4, 2018.  For further information, visit the Drawing on the Past event page.

Pencil outline of the Santa Prisca Cathedral

Arthur Rider (1886-1975), Santa Prisca Cathedral, pencil on paper, The Irvinve Museum Collection at UCI

A view from a hill to the ocean with a boat in the water and mountains in the back

View Across the Bay, Francis Todhunter (1884-1963), watercolor on paper , The Irvine Museum Collection at UCI

view of a mountain through tress

John Baumgartner (1865-1946), Rancho Santa Margarita, gouache on paper, Private Collection

Eching of a house on a hill

Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894), Mission San Diego de Alcala, etching on paper, Private Collection