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Archive for the ‘Winslow Homer equipment/technique’ Category

Homer’s studio/home Prout’s Neck, Maine

I’ve done a post on Homer’s brushes here and his paper here and his paint here and here and I’ve posted a picture of his tin palette here , so why not do something about his studio.  Fortunately one of the people who left a comment (Louis Mezian) mentioned that he had visited Prout’s Neck and actually got into the studio and took pictures.  He has been kind enough to scan them and allow them to be posted here with his comments.

The background of the studio

Winslow Homer  settled on the coast of Maine in 1884 on some land adjacent to his father’s summer home at Prout’s Neck in Scarborough, Maine. He moved his father’s carriage house about 150 feet along the coast and retained architect John Calvin Stevens to modify the former stables into his studio and residence. Until his death in 1910,  he worked there when he wasn’t traveling, for example to the Bahamas.

The Portland Museum of Art purchased Winslow Homer’s Studio in January of 2006 and retained Mills Whitaker Architects in early 2007 to begin planning an restoration to restore the building to the time of Homer’s life (not, of course, to what it was like when it was a stable. The facility will be used for an artist/scholar-inresidence program, for special events hosted by the Museum Director and for high school art classes.

Here are some brief comments by Louis Mezian about his photos:

1. I don’t recall seeing before the laundry drying on the second floor. No, they are not Homer’s old longjohns still hanging. Actually as I was walking around a woman said hello from the second floor. She was staying there after having made arrangements with Homer’s relatives, she said. I think she added that others have stayed there also, and I can make a request too!

2. Naturally I was excited and curious, and then approached the door with great veneration. The entrance was actually a curtain. I pulled the curtain and … the portrait in the corner, and immediately the watercolors of Winslow Homer all over! All reproductions of course, but much of the furniture was his own and many of his books were there too still sitting neatly on the shelves.

3. The red curtain shown is the one I remember pulling. (Apparently there is a door too, but it may been open.)

4. The sign about the “mice and snakes” I had read about. He must have had it outside somewhere and it was to keep privacy. He didn’t want admirers coming around. The large crate he used for his travels south and maybe elsewhere (I don’t think he ever went to Galveston, Texas though?)

There was nobody around, and I stayed there for many hours!
Thanks, Louis!!

The Portland Museum has bought this house, charges $50 to visit, and there is nothing in it but the old snakes sign.  The New York Times has recently (11/2/2012) written an article about it here.

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I was standing in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my artist friend Bernie bemoaning the fact that there were no watercolors by Sargent or Homer on display in any museum in New York City in spite of both the Met and The Brooklyn Museum having huge collections.   He immediately asked what was stopping me from asking to see them.  He clearly wasn’t going to put up with a “poor me” attitude.

Thus challenged I asked at the information desk to whom I should write.  This led to an e-mail correspondence with the curator of American Art who said that they did indeed have a great collection at the Met and that I was eminently qualified to look at them (!).  However, she was very apologetic that, because of the construction associated with building a new American Wing, there was no space for me to do so.  When I asked, she gave me a name at the Brooklyn Museum to whom I immediately sent an e-mail.   This, in turn led to an appointment with Karen Sherry, the assistant curator of American Art in the Brooklyn Museum, to see Homer’s work.

Ms. Sherry could not have been nicer or more professional.  She said that there was going to be a Sargent show in 2013 and therefore all the Sargents they had were being kept in the dark at present because of the light exposure which they will sustain during the show.  However, no such restrictions applied to the Homers.  She e-mailed me an illustrated list of the 24 Homers they have from which I chose three although she did not restrict the number. (I had been given only an hour to view them.)  My strategy was to pick fairly late ones in which Homer’s style had evolved from his early more or less English style.  The three ones I choose were the following:

Road in Bermuda

In The Jungle, Florida

End of Portage

The way it worked was that they were wrapped in translucent paper and laid on a table.  I was not allowed to touch them, but Karen Sherry was there to unwrap and move them for me, and we chatted as I looked.

Before I saw them I was a little uncertain what benefit I would get from seeing the originals over seeing reproductions, but afterwards I had no doubts.

The most prominent observation, which I think is only possible from the originals, was how heavily the paint was applied in a lot of places.   For the most part there was layer after layer of paint in the fairly prominent dark passages.  Most of the passages were not transparent at all.  Homer clearly put down large area of the lightest paint such as yellow or greenish yellow, waited for them to dry, and then applied another darker layer over that, and repeated the process over and over again.  For the most part the “glazes” were never completely over the layer below them.  There were little” windows” left through which to see the paint below.   There was some use of a damp brush to take off some of the top layer for things like tree branches.  However, the glaze itself was almost never transparent .    A lot of areas were heavily worked over, glazes, scrapes, lifting off, etc.

It was difficult to tell if Homer used the equivalent of friskit, a resist, on any of these paintings which at the time was a chalk paste which was taken off by bending the sheet of paper over and edge, called counter rolling.   Chalk resist was invented by the English watercolorist Francis Nicolson (1753-1844).   If it had been the rubber cement-like stuff we use today, I think I could have seen the hard edge it tends to leave.  I could see a lot of pencil marks.  In each of the paintings there was a small red element like in the belt of the guide in the front of the canoe in End of Portage.  I always thought it was vermillion which was on his palette, but it look more like carmine now.  Perhaps it had faded.

The paint in these heavily glazed areas was what would be called “bronzed” in watercolor parlance.  That is, it was heavy enough to be what some call “scabby” and had a dull and flat matte look.  Today this is considered a mistake:  over worked, bronzing, etc.   (A corollary of this is that there were not many wet in wet areas.)  However, it did not leave me with that impression.  First of all, it was Homer playing off against the “inanely pretty” work seen today and in his day (which a reviewer pointed out).   Seeing the watercolors “in person” at the Brooklyn Museum I would have to 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).  (Watercolors were called “drawings” in those days and the brush, believe it or not, was called a “pencil” in the old days — “drawing” are done with “pencils”, after all.)

The heavily painted areas with the windows to the previous glazed layer suggested a depth and mystery to the nearby woods and forests that every woodsman would recognize.   That is to say, the environment is not completely revealed, and modern eye-tracking studies would suggest that viewers are going to search by instinct behind every tree and into every bush for possible “dangers.”  It’s  holds the eye in the painting. See James Gurney’s discussion of viewers’ eye movements looking at a painting of his with a dinosaur in a woods here.

It, also, looked to me like a deliberate strategy to make the isolated wet-in-wet or more fluid “splashy” passages standout as special.  That is, rather than make an entire watercolor wet-in-wet bravura brush strokes and splashy with lots of blank white paper like, for example, Charles Reed, Homer has chosen to draw the eye to a few such passages which by contrast to the more bronzy passages make them seem every more delightful.   The heavy passages also make for deep darks and intense dark colors.

Because there is always a well-drawn and more delicately painted center of interest, the paintings are easy to get in a superficial way if you’re just strolling by, but the complexity of the background of the paintings can also draw you into them.

I had never really thought deeply about Walter Benjamin’s work about “mechanical reproduction” of art before this, but seeing the real thing and seeing reproductions on the internet were completely different experiences.   There is no way one can pick up the”direct, simple, crude sometimes” quality that makes them great (and very modern, now that I think if it.)  However, with high definition reproductions (which entail both the image and the monitor) that all may change.  I certain hope so.  It’s hard to see a real Homer or Sargent these days.

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Traditionally when we draw,   line is used to separate forms and to indicated where color or value changes.

In many types of painting, for example oil painting,  the drawing is for the eyes of the artist alone and is usually completely hidden by the application of paint.   The same applies to the support like the canvas which is most often covered up, but in watercolor painting the paper is often left white and the line is left showing.   This is not simply an unfortunate problem one has to put up with in watercolor.  It says something important:  The evidence of effort of the watercolor painter is left for people to see, and there is no desire to fool the viewer into thinking he or she is looking through a window into a real scene.  Although the line can be descriptive sometimes the application of watercolor doesn’t follow the line or doesn’t completely fill the space delineated by the line.   It is a much more abstract type of painting superimposed on a realistic drawing.

Of course, the paper and the line can be hidden in the types of watercolors that I don’t personally like, but in Homer’s case commentators have notice that Homer uses the line as part of the final painting.  It is for our eyes also.    He, however, uses it mostly in the figurative center of interest, and  even there he does not use it to separate color or value, but only form.   For example, he will draw lines to indicate the outline of a shirt or pair of pants that someone is wearing, but  use watercolor of different values to indicate the folds in the cloth.  Occasionally he will use pencil lines on some of the rigging of boats where the form being portrayed in actually a thin line.

As I have already indicated, I think one way of thinking about the pencil line in watercolor is that there are really two pictures superimposed on each other.  The first is the drawing which in some artist’s work is quite prominent (like Charles Reid).  The drawing therefore has to be good and it has to be accurate and the line has to be interesting, not sketchy.  A continuous contour drawing works very well.   Another interesting observation is that drawing mistakes often don’t have to be erased, particularly if the color isn’t going to follow them.   Homer’s drawings are remarkably accurate, but, of course, early in his career he was sending drawing back from the civil war front.     Superimposed on the drawing is the application of color washes which do not have to necessarily do the work of defining form.  They “decorate” the drawing.  Thus in the Blue Boat which you will see on the masthead of this blog, the boat and the men are drawn beautifully, but the background is, in fact,  done in a very different style.  Homer has really gone all out and restated some of his darks and added gum arabic to make it not too flat and reflective  — a practice that is usually avoided by watercolorists.   It is the combination of these two styles that is so wonderful in Homer allowing him to produce what I am calling two separate works of art superimposed on each other.

There are two other artists who I have noticed work with one picture superimposed on another.  Turner did  the very colorful background first, let them dry, and then, often in a careless way, put figures and objects over it.  The Monet water lilies were done the same way.  He first painted a colorful water scene but so abstractly and colorfully that I think it would be hard to recognize at this stage.  Over this he put in water lilies in perfect perspective.  That’s hard to do because waterlilies are ellipses; and as they receded, they are very different, flatter.  When this worked the picture came together:  the water looked flat and the lilies receded into space.  When it failed, the water lilies look like balloons floating upward and the water didn’t seem like water but atmosphere.

In ink and wash drawings using watercolor the “weight” of the inkline is much more than the typical pencil line in true watercolor. The ink line is very prominent and kind of upstages the wash of color which seems often to be perfunctory in the sense that there is very little action in the wash — no mixing of warm and cool colors, no scrubbing, blotting out, and so forth.   It is more a ink drawing, which may have had a pencil underdrawing, to which some color has been added rather than a watercolor with pencil lines in the “background.”

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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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