Winslow Homer's Deep Bench

Last weekend I taught a workshop on the watercolors of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, and while researching images of their paintings, was reminded once again how prolific these two artists were in this addictive, difficult medium.

Detail, John Singer Sargent

Detail, Winslow Homer

I was excited to find watercolors by Homer that I hadn't seen before. And there are many more out there waiting to be discovered.

Click on images for larger view.

Homer has an especially "deep bench" of watercolors--a baseball term you are familiar with, if like me you watched the recent exciting World Series. It means that a team has a treasure trove of good pitchers available, ready and able to get into the game.

Winslow Homer's deep bench is the more than seven hundred watercolors he created over the course of three decades.

He said, "What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way."

Homer came to watercolor after many years of filling sketchbooks, while working as an illustrator (an occupation he described as "bondage") and as a visual reporter during the Civil War.

He also had decades as an oil painter under his belt. But his oil paintings had stopped selling, and watercolor seemed like a marketable alternative. He called his immersion into this new medium a "desperate plunge" towards making a living as an independent artist.

Homer often traveled in search of inspiration, and he stuck with a subject until he made it his own.

He produced one of his first extended watercolor themes--boys and girls in a bucolic setting--during a summer holed up on a friend's farm in the Adirondacks.

Gloucester, Massachusetts, a thriving seaport and artist's colony, provided inspiration for another unique series of watercolors. Homer focused on children again, on color, and design.

During his time in Gloucester, Homer painted many carefully finished, fully developed compositions


and also quick, economical sketches.








In the course of his long life painting, Winslow Homer always came back to the ocean.








Again and again he explored the theme of people living with the sea.





And Homer always returned to color. He said, "You can't get along without knowing the rules governing the influence of one color upon another. A mechanic might as well try to get along without tools."


Homer also said, "It is wonderful how much depends upon the relations of black and white... A black and white, if properly balanced, suggests color. ”



When he was 45, Homer took another plunge, and moved to the seacoast of England. His two years of constant painting there resulted in larger scale, more finished watercolors, and a new theme that placed hardworking women front and center.

And they sold well enough that he could quit New York City and illustration work, and move to Prouts Neck, Maine, his home for the rest of his life.

The "desperate plunge" into a new medium had paid off. Homer was right when he said, "You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors."


Even faded pigments, and the damage time does to paper, can't obscure their strength and sensitivity.




The painting below from his tropics series is my favorite new discovery from Homer's deep bench of watercolors.


Winslow Homer had few words for the public, but they are all worth thinking about.

Especially this one: "The Sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks. ”


Click here for my blog post on John Singer Sargent's watercolors.

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