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Winslow Homer: watercolor and wilderness.

"You will see, in the future i will live by my watercolors."

Looking Carefully

Winslow Homer was almost thirty eight years old before he began to use watercolor as a means of artistic expression. Prior to 1873, the traveler's medium, as watercolor was known, was essentially used to create color sketches for his oil paintings, or as the basis for engravings. During that period, there was no real market for watercolor paintings, and therefore little incentive for artists to create finished work in the medium. Homer's early watercolors reflect the needs of the wood engraver in their flat, single washes, sharp sense of pattern, precise outlines and preoccupation with light and shadow.

One of the characteristics of Homer's watercolors is that they were generally created in series, with the themes selected according to the place the artist was visiting. Canoe in Rapids, (centerspread) painted in 1897, portrays a scene of men in the wilderness. Homer has effectively captured the drama and excitement of a fragile canoe being tossed by a raging current. Note the use of strong contrasts between water and forest, and the contrasts in color, value and shape in the sky and water. A feeling of motion and activity has been created throughout Canoe in Rapids. Notice how tire unique, almost water level point of view is used to heighten the action of the painting.

Homer's watercolor technique evolved over the years and Creme in Rapids, reflects his emphasis on using watercolor to create drama and atmosphere. Rejecting the brilliant color he used in his earlier Adirondack and Tropic watercolors, Homer used graded washes, strung contrasts and a limited palette to create the form, light and atmosphere of his compelling wilderness watercolors.

Canoe in Rapids is not considered one of his monochromatic studies, but the palette is quite subdued when compared with some of Homer's other series. Discuss the possible intent of a limited palette. What kinds of moods or effects do different color combinations or limited combinations tend to convey? Was Homer successful in his use of a limited palette?


The drama of Canoe in Rapids is very different from the silent mystery found in another of his wilderness scenes, Two Men in a Canoe (this page). Compare the two works. How do the compositions of each differ? Discuss the devices used to create the very different moods.

In a sense, Two Men in a Canoe, created in 1895 on Lake St. John in Quebec, is different from most of Homer's watercolors. In the Lake St. John series, Homer worked on finding the precise relationship of values of dark and light. He said, "... much depends upon the relationship of black and white ... and if properly balanced, it suggests color ..." Notice the drama created through the monochromatic palette. Look closely at his use of black-and-white tones, and the silent, mysterious effect he has created to evoke the feeling of a hazy lake at sundown. Notice the subtle difference between the deeper grayed tones of the nearest island and the reflection seen in the still water. Then look above the island to the distant shore. Note the muted tones of the forest in the background. See how the reflection is cast in slightly lighter tones in the lower foreground of the lake. These very subtle differences work together to create a greater feeling of depth in this painting when compared with Canoe in Rapids. The depth in this image is augmented by a very vivid reflection coming reward the viewer.

Compare the visual depth of the two paintings. How do they differ? Do you think the variation was purposefully planned by Homer? How did this device enhance the compositions? Compare the treatment of the trees in the two paintings. Which is more dynamic and dramatic? How does this enhance each composition? Examine the paintings for compositional devices used by Homer. What kind of balance does each painting have? Would you say Homer used symmetrical or asymmetrical composition in each painting? What information supports your opinion ? How has Homer balanced the activity and intense color of the fishermen in the foreground of Two Men in a Canoe? Note some of the shapes which are repeated to create a harmonious composition. Point to the places in the painting which have the greatest contrast.


Homer was a master of creating perspective through the use of muted or grayed colors. When creating perspective with color, an artist must keep in mind that colors tend to gray as they re cede into the distance. In watercolor technique this is achieved by adding water to thin the color, and adding just a bit of the complementary color to diminish the intensity.

Watercolor purists generally do not use white pigment in their paintings. They prefer to use the white of the paper as it shows through the layers of transparent pigment. There are many ways to block out the watercolor as the washes are applied. Some artists use rubber cement, tape, special block-out frisket and wax or oil based materials which resist the water. In this painting, Homer used white, opaque pigment--referred to as gouache--to indicate the reflections of light. He may have used it to describe the dell care fishing line on the right side of the painting, but he also may have used a sgraffito or scratching out technique.

Key Concepts

* Watercolor is an expressive medium with unique properties that cannot be achieved in any other paint medium.

* The characteristics of a paint medium dictate the manner of its application.

* The distinguishing characteristic of watercolor is its transparency.

* The white of the paper lends luminosity, highlights and contrast to watercolor painting.

* Painting is a process of exploring and discovering.


Winslow Homer was born in the harbor area of Boston, Massachusetts in 1836, and grew up in neighboring Cambridge. Homer's early interest in drawing overshadowed his academic studies, and at age 18 he began an apprenticeship in the graphic arts shop of J.H. Bufford in Boston. After three years as an apprentice, he began his career as a freelance graphic artist. He worked as an artist-correspondent for Harper's Weekly during the Civil War. His reputation as an illustrator resulted in many commissions for the leading popular journals of the era. At this point m his development, Homer allied himself with the popular genre painters of the rime including Richard Caton Woodville and George Caleb Bingham.

After the war, Homer spent much of his time recording the life of vacationers at the new resorts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and along the Atlantic seaboard. From 1866 to 1881, Homer's work reflected a social cross section of American life. He left a legacy in magazine engravings of over three thousand human figures during this period.

The 1870s found Homer turning his energies toward watercolor. He had a flair for the medium and his enthusiasm is reflected in his fresh and spontaneous landscapes and waterscapes. In the early 1880s Homer traveled to England and spent two years at Culler-coats, a fishing village near Newcastle on the North Sea. It was here that he employed the traveler's medium of watercolor to produce a flood of seascapes, and paintings of people who worked on and near the sea. Upon his return to America, he closed his studio in New York, and moved to a permanent residence in Maine. Here he painted in solitude using the fishermen, hunters and guides as his subjects. He spent twenty-seven years at Prout's Neck, Maine, moving through several stages in his development. During this period, some of his more famous watercolor series resulted from visits to the Tropics and to the Canadian wilderness.

Suggested Activities


* Experiment with watercolor paintings on different papers. Try crumpled paper, newspaper, yellow pages, wrapping paper and construction paper.

* Have the students do flat or graded washes as background for cut paper compositions.

* Have the students draw a cityscape or landscape--from the window or in the neighborhood--with light color crayons (yellow, orange or white). Have them brush darker watercolor over the crayon drawing to create a resist composition.

* Students can explore a wet-on-wet water technique. Have them soak a piece of water color paper, and try blotting up areas. They can experiment with blending colors, and explore various tools and materials for special effects--sponges, facial tissue, blotting paper, masking tape, felt tipped pens or salt.

* Have the students do a gouache painting on dark construction paper. Provide a small amount of white tempera to tint the watercolor. Try an outer space or underwater composition.


* Have students explore the fundamental watercolor techniques (flatwash, graded wash, dry brush, wet on wet and dry on wet) on a still-life. Relate the techniques to concepts learned in drawing as: general to specific, light to dark and large to small.

* Have students practice different brush-strokes with a variety of brushes. Try holding the brush in different positions. Stroke, stamp, twirl, lay; get to know what brushes can do. Use different parts of the brush such as the tip, side, heel or handle.

* Students can experiment with different watercolor papers. Determine the different ability to hold color. Find out what textures remain.

* Ask students to execute a small landscape or still life four times, keeping the same colors, but changing the intensity relationships of background, middle ground and foreground.

* Students try variations on resist. Explore wax crayons, oil pastels, waxed paper, sealing wax and floor wax.

* Assign a limited-palette, wash painting in the style of Homer. The students should work on developing contrast and depth, as well as glazing and overpainting without muddying the colors.


Anbinder, Paul. (ed.) Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout's Neck Observed. Essays by Philip C. Beam, Lois Homer Graham, Patricia Junker, David Tatham and John Wilmerding. New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York, 1990.

Cooper, Helen A. Winslow Homer Watercolors. New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1986.

Finch, Christopher, Nineteenth-Century Watercolors. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.

Hendricks, Gordon. The Life and Work of Winslow Homer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Winslow Homer: The Nature of the Artist. 16 mm Film, Beta or VHS Videocassette. Dept. of Extension Programs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 20565.
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Title Annotation:looking and learning project using 'Canoe in Rapids' and 'Two Men in a Canoe'
Author:Doornek, Richard
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Wholly cow!!!
Next Article:The first water color lesson.

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