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Archive for August, 2009

If you go to a museum, Homer’s watercolors are usually described as having been made on “off-white wove paper”.  Sometimes the fact that it has a watermark (manufacturer’s name) is mentioned, but never is that name revealed.  “Wove paper” is the way paper is made today.  Early paper is described as “laid paper.”  The difference has to do with the screen on which the paper pulp is dried.  Laid paper is dried on a fairly loose screen and leaves a grid-mark on the paper whereas wove paper does not.

The term “wove” paper comes from the fact that Whatman, the English inventor, use a screen of thin brass wires that were actually woven into cloth the same way that other fabrics are.

Water color papers come in sheets or blocks (see below) usually in 140 pound or 300 pound weight and three surface treatments:  hot pressed (very smooth), cold press (with a texture), and rough (with a pronounced texture.)  In England cold press paper is sometimes called “Not”, that is “not hot pressed.”  A long and informative article on watercolor paper can be found here.

From our point of view it is better to know that Homer used cold-pressed  paper specifically machine-made for watercolors which was combined  into watercolor blocks.

To be specific Homer for the most part used machine-made paper made by J. Whatman in medium  or heavy weigh.  He seems to have used this paper in blocks, that is paper that has been prevented from buckling from the application of  juicy washes by having all four side bound by gum to the sheets of paper below it and to a thick cardboard backing.  (Paper will still buckle but not as much.)   The size he used in the early years was 10 x 14 inches  (probably 10 by 15, the “quarter sheet” with an inch cut off later in the studio) and later he went up to 20 x 15 1/2 inches and sometimes 22 x 17 1/2.  These size blocks, more or less, can still be obtained but the company, I believe, is now called “Saunders Waterford” .  See here for a description.   It seems to be the premium paper endorsed by the Royal Watercolour Society of England.  It is marginally more expensive than Arches.  I have not myself found it in block form.  It is available on-line from many suppliers.   Homer is said to have trimmed his final watercolors for compositional reasons, so many of the dimensions that are seen when shown in a book or museum are not exactly the same as those mentioned above.   However, he might have drawn in a frame or used tape around the edges which many artists do.  It helps you to see the composition if there is a frame.   Also the dimensions are measured on the block on which the paper is made and it shrinks a little bit.

The closest you are going to get today to Homer’s sizes are the Quarter Sheet (11×15), the Half Sheet (15 x 22) and what is called The Demy  (17 1/2 x 22 1/2) (which I have never seen for sale).  What we are using here is the British Imperial system for paper dimensions.  A full sheet, available in all art stores, is 22 x30.  Then there is the half sheet (15 x22) and the quarter sheet (11 x 15).

Homer did not wet his paper expect for a few experiments.  He started with a dry wash which left tiny pinpricks of white showing through.  This is said to create a “sparkle.”

So from the point of view of painting like Homer just about any cold pressed watercolor block in the sizes mentioned should do.  Don’t wet it, just start laying in washes.

I should mention that John Singer Sargent also used watercolor blocks.  I do so because there is a lot of  gadgets for sale for holding paper in the field that wont help you to do a painting any better than these two guys.

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When watercolor painting got going, new sorts of “brushes” had to be developed.  In fact, in the beginning they were called “pencils”.  The oil brushes up to that time were flats with bristle hairs.  Watercolor brushes had to hold a reservoir of pigment and be capable of forming a sharp point at the end with which one could draw a line.  The term “pencil” did not yet refer to graphite but to the purpose of the instrument, drawing.

So the belly of the brush was fat to hold paint, but the point was sharp to draw.  The best brushes would respond to an increase in pressure by widening the line drawn.  There was also the need to make a wash by really using pressure and flatting the brush out like a mop.  A good brush would “snap” back into its full bellied but sharp pointed shape.  Kolinsky hair brushes (see here) are the best “snappers”.

We have some of Homer’s brushes in the Bowdoin College collection and they seem to be sable-hair mops which used to be in feathers quills.  Since “red sable” is often used for the Siberian weasel called kolinsky, they may be kolinsky hair. It’s a shame that Bowdoin College art history department doesn’t know about brushes.  On the other hand, the animal in the marten family called a “sable”  was known for sometime and hunted for fur coats so it might be hair from this animal.  Today they are made from squirrel hair from a squirrel called a Kazan Squirrel from a cold region of Russia.  A mop will hold a huge amount of water in its belly and forms a needle-sharp point but it doesn’t snap back.  Ox hair will snap back, but it doesn’t hold a lot of paint.  Only Kolinsky (for name see here) hair does it all:  point, hold a lot of paint, and snap back.

homer's brushes

The size of the mop brushes were labelled in the beginning with bird names.  The biggest brush was an eagle; the smallest, a lark.  I use mops and find them very rewarding.  Since I’m trying to paint like Homer in the stage of his life when it looks to many people that he was influence by Japanese and Chinese wash drawings, having a brush that is delicate like the oriental brushes is inspiring.

isabey kazan quirrel quill mop brushHere is a close-up of a modern mop, Isabey’s Kazan Squirrel Mop brush.  It still has a quill, I believe, but most of it is a delicate wood handle.
So if you want to paint like Homer, you might pick up some of these mops, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t have other brushes.  So you should get the best watercolor brushes you can afford, probably Kolinksy.   On the other hand, a good big mop will do very well.   You just have to dip it in paint to restore the point.

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As I indicated in my first post, to paint like Homer it’s a good idea to use the same pigments that he used.  There are some serious problems with this approach because many of his pigments have been superseded because of technical reasons which can be that they are not lightfast or that they tend to lose a lot of character as they dry and so forth.  Both Prussian Blue and Aureolin, for example, don’t have very good reputations.  I’ll discuss this in later posts,  but for the moment here’s something about his pigments.

The published analyses of the pigments in the palette shown in the previous post are somewhat technical.  For example one of his pigments is described as “Prussian blue (Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3) extended with alunite [K,DNa]Al3[OH]6[SO4]2)” .  I believe this is Antwerp Blue, “alunite” (PW24 –meaning Pigment White 24) being whitish.  I think, however, that currently Antwerp Blue is made with Prussian Blue and Blanc Fixe PW21 (barium sulfate).

Therefore, I shall list the paints, most of them Winsor Newton in Homer’s case, that are mentioned in the article by Judith C. Walsh “Observations on Watercolor Techniques of Homer and Sargent” in Susan  E. Strickler “American Traditions in Watercolor, The Worcester Art Museum Collection (Worcester: Worcester Art Museum, 1987 pages 45-65.

It’s noticeable to a modern painter that Homer didn’t have any cadmium paints in his palette.  The deep orange, scarlet, and red cadmium paints didn’t become available to the artist until 1910, the year Homer died.  There was a middle yellow and a light orange in 1842, but they probably were not as good as the pigments Homer was already using.  In general cadmium pigments are not transparent which might be another reason to find alternatives even today not to mention that they are very expensive.  (and by the way, although raw cadmium is poisonous, cadmium pigments are chemically combined with other chemicals and are not harmful at all.)

The fact that I am posting these pigments doesn’t mean you should use all of them when you start painting or that this list is all the pigments he used.  We know in the Bahamas, for example, he started using Prussian Blue for water and added, sometimes, Ultramarine Blue.

Antwerp Blue       Aureolin     Bone Black     Burnt Sienna

Burnt Umber        Cadmium Yellow     Chinese White

Chrome Orange   crimson Lake     Green Earth

Hooker’s Green (“1 & 2”?)   Indian Purple     Indian Red

Indian Yellow    Prussian Green    Payne’s Gray

Scarlet Lake     Sepia     Warm Sepia

Van Dyke Brown Vermillion      Cobalt Blue (?)

For the record, Homer also used the forerunner of Frisket, a masking agent or “resist”, that was invented by the English watercolorist Francis Nicolson (1753-1844) called Chalk Resist.  This was a thick paste of powdered chalk mixed with water.  When it dried, it could be painted over with a wash.  To remove it one could roll the sheet over the edge of a table, “counter-rolling” it was called, and this would break the chalk off.  It could also be removed with a knife.  In a pinch it could still be used today.

Finally Homer used a binder, gum arabic, to add body and translucence to the color.  Watercolor pigment already has gum arabic in it, but he added more.  The gum arabic is what sticks the pigment to the paper.    One panting to which he added additional gum arabic is the “The Blue Boat” ( in the greens and browns in the middle and far distance).  I’ve used this painting as the masthead of this blog.

gum arabicHere is a picture of gum arabic on the acacia tree which has been cut like rubber trees to increase production of sap.  It is mostly grown in Africa today.

The theory behind the use of gum arabic is that pigment as purchased has water and gum arabic in a particular ratio that is best for using.  If you dip your brush constantly into water and then pick up pigment you are increasing the amount of water without increasing the amount of gum arabic.  Therefore, some artists add a little bit of gum arabic to the clean water that they dip their brush.  That way there is still adequate gum arabic to stick the pigment to the paper.

The best gum arabic comes from the Kordofam region of the Sahara and has been compared to wine in the sense that certain years are better than others (“vintages”) and how it is prepared (cleaned) is important.  There is cheap gum arabic and dear gum arabic, but artists have little choice.

The major use of gum arabic is as a food additive, for example in some chocolate, and in many other substances.  It’s use in watercolor from a business prospective is trivial.  At one time it was the glue on postage stamps.

The opposite in terms of gum arabic use in watercolor is so-called ox gall (from cow gall bladders) which, instead of bulking up the watercolor, makes it runnier.   It’s a wetting agent. I’ve seen no reference to Homer using ox gall, however.  Using ox gall you can make the pigment so watery that it soaks right through the paper!  I understand that Winsor Newton today still uses it in its paints.

Watercolors are sometimes combined with gouache a much more opaque and high intensity pigment.  Homer in the beginning used them both.  Gouache is a water-based pigment and is often said to have as a binder gum arabic, but I have also read that it uses a different binding, dextrin which is a binder derived from potatoes.  White gouache is often used at the end of a watercolor to reassert the highlights that have somehow gotten lost because it can go over dark colors (it is a light over dark paint whereas watercolor is a dark of light paint.)  Le Claire (see reference in earliest post) says that in his classes some of the students did work with watercolor and some did work with dilute gouache and no one could tell which was which.

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antique watercolor box Green and Stone (click on the name) in Chelsea, London have pictures of many different kinds of these old watercolor boxes, most of them already sold.  They also sell a modern walnut watercolor pochade box with and without pigment.

Here’s another type of antique watercolor box

small watercolor boxNow let us look at Winslow Homer’s watercolor box.  When he died at Prout’s Neck, Maine his family gave this box and some brushes to Bowdoin College where they still are. (There is another box in the Portland Museum as well.)  The pigments have been analyzed and correlated with the legible names written on the palette.  From this Homer’s working palette has been determined (I’ll discuss this in another post.)  It looks like he is using half-pans very similar to the ones we still use today.  I’m surprised there was plastic in those days.  The only plastic, I think, was celluloid.

palette open

Here’s the palette closed:  Scarboro Beach is about 7 miles south of Portland.  Prout’s Neck is nearby and apparently considered in Scarboro Beach.  Perhaps, it’s a very early one before his family bought most of Prout’s Neck.

For more on Homer’s stuff see here for Homer’s palette . See here for Homer’s paper.  See here for Homer’s brushes.

palette closed

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This post is a “sticky”, meaning you will always see it first whenever you visit this blog.  Immediately following it will be the latest post. I’ve abbreviated this introduction.  Click “continue reading” to see the rest.

When Winslow Homer started to make his late Adirondack watercolors ( from about 1889), he also made a sudden shift in his technique.  The change was so rapid some art historians have concluded that he must have been responding to an outside influence because there didn’t seem to be any evidence of a gradual development. Most commentators suggest that the influence was Japanese ink and wash paintings (I’ve appended a quote and some more information that is more detailed about this change in technique at the end of this post.)  Although there are a total of about 700 watercolors by Homer that are known,  75 seem to have been done at this time in the  Adirondacks.    They are my favorite watercolors of all time.

photo Winslow Homer

I  personally like Homer’s work much more than, for example,  Sargent’s.  He draws in a way I like better (he is less “academic” and more “photorealist”)  and Homer’s colors are more like how I see the world (Sargent used viridian green almost exclusively and a huge amount of Ultramarine Blue)  .  I agree with the statement in Scribner’s  that Homer’s watercolors were  ” direct, simple, crude sometimes –never “pretty”–they [have] the unmistakable look of nature . . . such drawings as these are a judgement upon the easily discerned tendencies of some other artists –toward the sentimental, the gorgeous, and the inanely pretty.” (quoted in Helen A. Cooper “Winslow Homer Watercolors” Yale, 1986).

Sitting in Central Park doing an “inanely pretty” watercolor I suddenly decided, I had to paint like Homer.  (In my defense I was using a small Japanese waterbrush kit with pretty colors.)    Homer is no longer around.  If he were, he might be giving workshops (unlikely given descriptions of his personality), but he isn’t. So what to do?  I would have to see what I could learn from what has been written and intuit what I could from looking at his work.  In New Age terminology I would have to “channel” Winslow Homer. I wanted to feel his influence in me as I worked like a medium communicates with the dead.

(more…)

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