Winslow Homer: Watercolor and Wilderness

Article excerpt

"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? …