Monthly Archives: June 2010

Looking at Technique: The Watercolors of Winslow Homer

Julia Einstein
Coordinator of Youth and Family Programs

Watercolor is “a simple combination of finely ground pigment or dye and a solution of water-soluble gum” and in Homer’s hand is transformed before our eyes! As I enter the Winslow Homer exhibition to explore the techniques of this spontaneous medium I imagine taking a trip with my watercolor case, as the artist would, and painting outside. When I travel from one painting to the next, I take a long look in order to figure out how it is done and perhaps to discover what Homer was thinking on this very spot. I am aware of the dim lighting in this gallery and the glass that covers and protects the paintings on paper. I make a special search for the “fugitive” colors, Payne’s Gray, Carmine Lake (red), and Indigo Blue, the most light sensitive pigments in Homer’s watercolor box. Fugitive colors fade when exposed to light and the only way to keep the color on the paper is to display the paintings for a short period of time. It is now that I begin to appreciate this very special experience.

A watercolor artist first applies the light colors and then adds the dark colors. Skill is required to create a careful build-up of thin, watery layers in several variations of a color so that the watercolor paper’s special surface texture shows through even the darkest shadows and depths. The scene is carefully composed to allow for the white of the paper to show through these transparent layers. The paper is handmade from linen fibers and strong enough to allow for the re-wetting and blotting and scraping of paint. Look for Winslow Homer’s painted ocean waves created with these techniques! Look at his painted skies and think of the controlled hand that made long strokes with a full brush of color! Look for his painted clouds formed by delicate movements with sandpaper over flat washes of color.

When you come to the exhibition, you’ll see the art of using watercolor in the large areas of color and smaller areas in which there are precise lines and fine details. You’ll see softness of an edge where a color has gently blended into another and a gentle gradation of color—from deep to pale as the paint moves into the puddles of water. You’ll see evidence of blotting—to create “granulations” of color in cloudy skies. And you’ll see how watercolors glow and have a special radiance that shines through—a special brilliance and brightness. You’ll be able to think of your own word to describe this!

As I prepare to leave the exhibition, I think about that “simple combination ” as I notice the effects of water and time and how the paint has changed from a wet bead of color to a dry beautiful effect. I imagine Winslow Homer perfecting his technique as a drop of water falls into a spot of color and creates a mark that can’t be made with a brush!

(Image credit: Winslow Homer (United States, 1836–1910), Young Ducks (detail), 1897, watercolor on paper, 14 x 21 inches, Portland Museum of Art. Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson.)

New Summer Sign on the Museum

Today a huge sign was installed on the front of the Museum to showcase our summer exhibition American Moderns: Masterworks on Paper from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 1910-1960. It’s so wonderful to see such an iconic image of Portland painted by Edward Hopper, an American master. The show opens tonight (6/23) and will be up through September 12. See additional images of Portland and Maine by Edward Hopper and other American masters such as John Marin, Andrew Wyeth, and Stuart Davis.

Winslow Homer Illustrations Online

In celebration of the opening last weekend of the exhibition Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place, the Museum debuted a website of highlights from its Winslow Homer illustrations collection. This groundbreaking online gallery lets viewers access more than 250 of Homer’s wood engravings, and many that have never been seen by the public. With each illustration, visitors are able to zoom in on the work and look at the amazing details.

Twenty works have “pop-up” hot spots embedded in the image, providing viewers with interesting information to enhance their experience of the work. An additional 10 works were photographed with their related magazine page, so viewers are able to zoom in on articles that accompany the illustrations.

The engravings are part of a remarkable gift of more than 450 Homer wood engravings given to the Museum by Peggy and Harold Osher in 1991, a nearly comprehensive collection of Homer’s graphic work. Due to the fragile nature of the graphics, the Museum has only been able to display two or three at a time.

Most of the works are from popular news magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and provide a unique glance into the cultural history of mid-19th-century America. Spend some time browsing the illustrations and learn more about daily life in the mid-1800s and Winslow Homer’s work.

This project is made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Maine Humanities Council, the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, the Simmons Foundation, and the Wing-Benjamin Trust.

(Image credit line: Winslow Homer (United States, 1836–1910), Fire-works on the Night of the Fourth of July from Harper’s Weekly, July 11, 1868, wood engraving on wove paper, 9 1/8 x 13 13/16 inches. Portland Museum of Art. Gift of Peggy and Harold Osher, 1991.25.34.)