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Awash in Watercolors

In kitchens, playrooms, and basements everywhere, it's a classic childhood activity. It was in my home growing up.

Every now and then, I'd spread out an old vinyl tablecloth on our kitchen table, fill a jar with water, and set to work with a paint set, brushes, and paper. My renderings covered our refrigerator door.

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I was an amateur watercolorist, as are countless youngsters. Every little hand can dunk a brush in water, then pigment, and create a colorful picture.

Maybe it's this connection with our childhood that makes watercolors a popular medium with museumgoers. "There's something about a watercolor that makes you want to look at it closely and stay with it," says Barbara Gallati, curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

Is it the delicate colorings, similar to those in Impressionist paintings, that delight? Or the dramatic portrayal of light? A spontaneous, fleeting feel?

These attributes and more are evident at the Brooklyn museum in a major retrospective of American watercolors, which Ms. Gallati co-curated. The exhibition features 141 works from the museum's collection of 800 watercolors, which hasn't been showcased in 15 years because of the paintings' fragility.

Walking through the exhibit reminded me how much I like watercolors. But this time, my appreciation went beyond the charming scenes and into how challenging watercolor technique can be. As the youngest artist can tell you, it's difficult to cover up mistakes because the colorings are transparent - that is, the color isn't of an opaque consistency to hide what's underneath.

My favorite artist in the exhibit, John Singer Sargent, let the fluid pigments flow and seep on the paper. "Bedouins" (c. 1905), for example, uses looser strokes to depict the pair's dress. This creates a more abstract look, giving a fresh vision of the subject.

"He used just about every technique that occurred to him," says Gallati, adding, "He's able to create the sense of being there." Indeed, watercolors often have an immediacy about them, which makes sense since many are painted on the scene.

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For beginners and experts, watercolors offer a friendly familiarity. Their simple beauty ensures their enduring popularity.

* 'Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement' is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through Aug. 23.

Judy Nichols is the assistant Arts & Leisure editor. Send comments to:

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