Wednesday, August 12, 2009

H: Winslow Homer

I have been focusing on my other blog ( in the little time that I have for writing these days. So I have been away from this forum, but I have been thinking about it a great deal lately. I was stuck on this letter for some reason. But I became like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five”—unstuck today.

Winslow Homer decided to pop up in my consciousness this morning. Perhaps because I was surfing H’s, perhaps because I have been considering marine subjects in my painting, or just because I have always liked his work.

When I was an undergrad, I blended my business studies with an art minor. The instructor, Dorothea Barrett O’Toole (I have no idea why I can remember her name), had us select a Master to copy. I had no idea who Homer was, but came across his work and it spoke to me. As my life has progressed, I have seen parallels that make me thankful that she gave that assignment.

I copied his painting “The Lookout—All’s Well” as both a black and white value sketch and a finished painting. At the time I had switched rooms and roommates. My first roommates in college were well-versed in the Grateful Dead and Cannibus and I was not. Not that I have become well-versed. I was a product of a strict Catholic upbringing (which meant that I was well-versed in Oat Soda) and I had spent most of my high school time attempting to get into the Naval and Air Force Academies. These two things combined for what would be a valuable perspective in my military service, but lost its value after my honorable discharge.

But I digress…one of my new roommates went by the name Kong (real nickname, but I’ll leave out his real name). I never really got to know him beyond the surface level, but I imagine he was very insightful. These were little, Spartanesque dorm rooms in the barracks style where three grown men occupied the space that would comfortably fit one. So my painting on an easel took up all of my allotted space. I struggled with the scale of the bell in that painting, which Kong would point out at every opportunity. Whenever I was working on it, he would wait until I stepped back to survey my effort and would offer his critique— “the bell’s too big.”

Each year, we held a show of work and some parents would offer to buy the art. I remember standing with the parents who were in the act of buying the painting, only to hear “the bell’s too big” from a grinning Kong standing in the background. They still bought it.

When I began to copy Homer, my Dad revealed that he was one of his favorite painters. He loved the painting “Breezing Up” so I spent the rest of my copying time working on that painting. My effort was drafted well, but painted so-so. You should never try to copy Winslow Homer with acrylic paint.

According to the website “Winslow Homer (February 24, 1836 - September 29, 1910) was an American landscape painter and printmaker, best known for his marine subjects.

He is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th century America and a preeminent figure in American art.

Largely self-taught, Homer began his career working as a commercial illustrator. He subsequently took up oil painting and produced major studio works characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium. He also worked extensively in watercolor, creating a fluid and prolific oeuvre, primarily chronicling his working vacations.”

As a sidebar, I need to qualify my quotations. This site is intended to observe and I don’t spend a great deal of time in the background research, because it is only secondary to the effort. If the sites that I quote get it a little wrong, well, we all remember things differently don’t we. If any readers know the facts differently or more accurately, take a moment to think how relevant it is to my observation before you feel offended. I welcome correction, but don’t get lost in the weeds.

I was very attracted to the fact that Homer was mostly self-taught. His mother, the more influential parent, was by all accounts a very skilled amateur watercolorist. His father spent most of his time chasing the “get rich” idea without great success. At 19, Homer was apprenticed to a Boston lithographer and learned the skills necessary to become a successful illustrator for newspapers and magazines of the time.

“Prolific” scarcely begins to describe his work. There are the numerous engravings and sketches for the magazines, the endless watercolors that defined the Caribbean (still do), and the rich oil paintings that decorate the most prestigious galleries of the world. His images define his skill as a story-teller relating peaceful strolls in meadows, snipers in wartime, lifeguards in tormented seas, and other slice-of life tales.

His design sense helps him create drama and feeling in his compositions. He catches moments in time at critical points in the action to heighten the sense of the story. His rich impasto paintings are studies in light and movement which place you in the middle of the churning sea or the crashing surf with a sense of the power of nature.

I am glad that Winslow has reappeared today in my mind. I will pull out some of his images to try to guide my hand as I work on my latest struggle.