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!