Winslow and His Watercolors
How the prolific painter lifted the medium from low art to high
Winslow Homer is proudly touted as one of America’s finest painters. His robust nature scenes have lent their unfussy and stolid New England sensibility to many a museum wall. But while viewers are no doubt familiar with Homer’s virtuoso handling of oils, the story of his passion for watercolors is one less often told.
Watercolor painting held an unusual place in the artistic hierarchy for much of their history, before Homer came along. This was, in part, because most people did not think of a watercolor as a finished artwork. It was common for painters like J.M.W. Turner to use the medium when working en plein air; they would capture a quick likeness to create a ‘sketch’ that could be used to complete a larger finished work back in the studio. Watercolor dries much more quickly than oils—it can take as much as a year or longer for an oil painting to fully dry, versus the mere 20 or so minutes it takes for a watercolor to be dry enough to roll up. Watercolor also provided an inexpensive way for an artist to test out a composition on-site; if the angle they’d picked to portray a building or landscape didn’t look quite right, he or she could simply toss the sketch, reposition themselves, and try again. It was this dime-a-dozen attitude towards watercolor that led to its association with amateurs, women, and ‘Sunday painters.’ For those just beginning to dabble in painting, watercolor provided a low-stakes arena to try their hand. Thus, for serious and professional artists, watercolor was, at most, a tool used to draft ‘legitimate’ works in oil.
Homer’s upbringing positioned him to champion watercolor as a medium, in several ways. His mother was an avid watercolorist, and it is very likely that his earliest forays into painting would have been as a young child at the side of her easel. At age 19, his father arranged for him to become an apprentice to a commercial lithographer, creating images for newspapers and magazines like Harper’s Weekly. He professed his distaste for the work, famously recalling “from the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any.” However, there’s no doubt that beginning his artistic practice in a ‘low art’ medium gave him a more open-minded outlook than his peers who began their careers learning oils in art school. After his employer, Harper’s, sent him into the front lines of the Civil War to capture scenes of battle, Homer was a bona fide expert at plein air painting.
Homer did create works in oils throughout his career, including many masterpieces such as The Fog Warning (1885) and Two Guides (c. 1875). His watercolors, however, have an immediacy and energy that oil paint simply did not permit. Watercolor provided a flexible medium for experimenting with light and color layering, as both public and personal interest in Chevreul’s color theory grew. The water-based nature of the medium also allowed Homer to channel Japanese aesthetics, as was the fashion of the time. Rather than mimicking the compositions or flattened depth of field, he was able to evoke the wash-and-splatter of eastern painting’s ink by using a similarly liquid kind of paint.
Homer played a major role in modernizing American art audiences’ attitudes towards watercolor, and brought it into the arena of ‘serious’ art. In 1873, he participated in the American Watercolor Society’s first major show. Between 1873 and 1905 he created over 700 works in watercolor, observed and painted in Gloucester, the Adirondacks, Quebec, Bahamas, Bermuda, and Florida.
While many of his contemporaries might have scoffed at the thought, Homer knew that his watercolors would earn him his career at the very beginning. “You will see,’’ he once told a collector, ‘’in the future I will live by my watercolors.’’ He might’ve meant financially, of course, though more than a way of surviving his watercolors gave him a legacy that would live on well past his death. (In fact, the “Winslow” style of the Meural Canvas is named after none other than the watercolor master.)