If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger- Part 1 Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer 1836-1910

Next month I've been asked to deliver a slide talk at the annual dinner of the Baltimore Watercolor Society. My title for the talk is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it's an acknowledgement that watercolor can be the trickiest of painting media. But my big point will be that seeing the work of some previous masters of this delicate medium teaches how to enjoy our eyes on a deeper more satisfying level. 

Three of the most important American watercolorists are Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield.

Let's start with Winslow Homer, who is photographed above wearing a natty three-piece suit that I bet he never wore to paint in. 

Homer's watercolor Stowing Sail, (1903, Art Institute of Chicago) was the first painting I ever saw. My parents had a framed print of it hanging over our sofa. I distinctly remember as a 3 year old connoisseur I used to lie on the carpet and study it. I figured it wasn't very good. 

Obviously, I thought, if Homer was a better artist he would have managed to paint in more of the missing details. What my young eyes missed was that Homer was using the watercolor medium with  broad and straightforward strokes intentionally. That's a kind of handling that the medium encourages. Watercolor was helping him practice the art of distilling his idea down to essentials. 

Here's Homer's Girl with Daisies. Even when doing the most stereotypical subject matter there's always something unexpected the artist can pull out for us. Here the artist avoids a too-ordinary presentation with a forcefully asymmetrical field, crowding all but a handful of his white blossoms into just one tightly-packed corner.

Homer was said to have advised other artists to never paint a blue sky. In his watercolor Rowing Home below he seems to take that suggestion to the water's surface as well.

Homer's watercolor Old Friends below reminds us painters to pay as much attention to what is next to our main forms. Here he makes
the tree trunk feel massive by pushing it forward with empty white areas of sky. 

Finally let's return to Stowing Sail. 

It's a masterpiece of curving rhythms that flow through the hull of both the rowboat and the big sloop. They're easier to see with the image upside-down. 

In the middle of these curves the ship's mast leans dramatically to the right. Homer gets his sailor to lean just the same angle, drawing him more tightly into a visual conversation with the rigging.

He does the same with the oar the sailor has put aside, mimicking  the angle of the ship's wooden boom at the top  of the detail below.

Winslow Homer left us over a hundred years ago. But more than any other 19th century American watercolorist, his work still speaks to us with forceful emotion. He realized studying the artists that had gone before him could make him a better artist. His paintings are the gift he left us that make us better as well.


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