As one studies a new medium, it can be useful to learn
about the process of masters that came before in order to gain inspiration and insight into
tackling various techniques. Here we focus on the great watercolorists of the
by Winslow Homer, 1891,
watercolor over graphite on heavy white wove paper, 13? x 20.
Collection Fogg Art Museum,
Harvard University Art Museums,
© President and Fellows of Harvard College.
by Naomi Ekperigin
Beginning artists often face the challenge of not knowing
where to begin their studies in a new medium. The diversity of the watercolor
medium can create confusion for artists, as the breadth of offerings can
be daunting. With so many different classes, groups, and books available, most
students do not know how to glean the most useful information from their
sources. Advice from several advanced artists and instructors all point to one
source when in need of a fresh perspective and motivation: the work of Old
Masters. There are artists within each art form who elevated the status of
the medium, developed new techniques, or faced challenges head-on, allowing
later generations to do the same. Although most masters of watercolor did not
create abstract work, they addressed fundamental issues that all painters can
learn from, regardless of the style they work in.
Painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
is widely held as one of the greatest American artists of his time. He began as
an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly,
one of the most popular publications of the day. He primarily depicted everyday life, responding to social and political change through his art. In
1861, the artist was sent by Harper’s
to the front lines of the Civil War, where he sketched scenes of military life.
This later inspired him to create a series of paintings on this subject
matter, and marked his turn from illustrator to painter. In 1873, he began to
work in watercolor, setting aside illustration to become one of the masters of
the medium. Other than a brief stint as an apprentice to lithographer John H.
Bufford and a few lessons at the National Academy of Art, in New York City, Homer was largely self-taught.
Trips to England and France inspired him to change his subject matter to landscapes.
|Sketch for Hound and Hunter
by Winslow Homer, 1892,
watercolor, 13 15/16 x 20.
Collection the National Gallery
of Art, Washington, DC.
Homer was one of the first artists to influence Andrew Wyeth, who went on to become one of the most famous watercolorists in America. “Homer led me on to something else. I got a direction that was authentic to me and to what I felt, ” he says in the catalogue Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, (Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire). Many other contemporary watercolorists agree that looking at Homer’s work can offer a lot to a beginning artist. Jane Angelhart, an artist-instructor who teaches watercolor, recently led a workshop
in which she showed the work of Old Masters to help students acquire new skills.
Homer is one of her prime examples, and she says that she has even copied one
of his pieces for her own edification. “I learned a variety of brushstrokes by
copying his work—I literally tried to copy every stroke he made. I was
astounded by the different colors he used just to depict a face lit in shadow.” Homer
often worked in series, focusing on specific themes and experimenting with
different techniques . His popular paintings featuring boys in rowboats
employed saturated washes of color and brilliantly depicted light reflecting on
“The most important lesson I took from Homer’s work was his light,”
says artist Linda Erfle. “He increased the intensity of his tonal contrasts by painting
bright light on water.” Homer’s watercolors are also known for their loose
brushwork; his tendency to fill the frame with large wash areas that are
frequently blotted, scraped or accented with blossoms or other watermarks; and his use of drybrush in the foreground to reveal the paper's surface texture. “Winslow
Homer incorporated spontaneous yet confident brushwork that leads the viewer
through the painting as if it were a musical piece,” says artist Shanna Kunz.
“Studying his work, along with that of other masters, helped me find my own
voice, and I’m sure the same can be said for thousands of artists before me.”
John Singer Sargent
by John Singer Sargent, 1917,
watercolor over graphite on
textured cream wove paper,
13½ x 20½. Collection
Worcester Art Museum,
by John Singer Sargent, 1902,
watercolor, 20? x 13 9/16.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was
one of the most popular portrait artists of his time, but he also left a legacy
that included 900 oil paintings and approximately 2,000 watercolors. In 1900 he shifted his focus to watercolor, as was part of his desire to elevate the medium and prove that watercolors were finished paintings in their own right. For the artist, watercolor was an escape from his portrait commissions, and
while on his international travels, he would record foreign landscapes in his
new favorite medium. “I find Sargent motivating not only for his technique, but
for the diverse subject matter he chose to paint,” says Erfle. “He’s the most
important watercolor master,” echoes Angelhart. “He painted subjects without
really painting them,” she explains, citing the painting Muddy Alligators as an example. “In that piece he painted the area around the crocodiles and added a few spots of shadow color—it’s amazing, and a
great lesson for every artist.”
Sargent’s feeling of spontaneity in watercolor that artists can learn from; his ability
to splash down paint with ease and then in a few strokes crystallize the marks
into a completed composition is still inspiring to artists today. Just as
important to note is that this seemingly loose style was based upon a strong
foundation: an underdrawing in graphite, which he used to place the central
figures and large forms. Similarly to his technique when working in oil, the
artist covered his surface in color after securing his drawing, and then
lightened areas to produces lights and tones, which he used to develop his
forms. He employed various tools to achieve his lights, from wax crayon to
sponges for blotting. Although Sargent provided little documentation of his
methods, each piece he left behind offers insight into an artist who rendered
his subject with the utmost care and skill.
|The Brush House
by Childe Hassam, 1916,
watercolor and graphite
on off-white wove paper, 15? x 22 5/16.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, New York.
|General Lee House, Richmond
by Childe Hassam, 1925,
watercolor, 8 x 10?.
Collection Greenville County Museum
of Art, Greenville, South Carolina.
American painter Childe Hassam
(1859–1935) began his career as a watercolorist and illustrator and became a
proponent of Impressionism after taking several trips to France during
his young adulthood. He brought the skills he developed in Europe back to New York City, where he
became one of the city’s premier Impressionist painters. Looking at his work, one can see the artist maturing over time, peeling away superfluous elements
to allow his vision to take center stage. His early painting exemplifies the Barbizon approach: a relatively muted palette of light, warm tones with a layering of darker colors used for modeling and shading.
Later, the artist becomes more intuitive, and applies color in broad, thick
strokes, which can be seen in paintings such as The Gorge, Appledore.
Artists can learn much from viewing Hassam’s work. He is known for his rich colors and bold
brushwork, and his focus on capturing light and color, as inspired by French
Impressionism. His piece The Brush House
is a straightforward composition—a house framed by trees—but it is his use of
watercolor that draws the viewer in. The artist focused on the shadows on the
roof, employing various techniques to create a multilayered effect. In some
areas along the face of the building, he let the white of the paper show through
to indicate patches of sunlight; to create deep shadows he layered the paint
wet-in-wet in some areas. The same can be seen in General Lee House, Richmond,
in which a simple graphite drawing is still visible beneath various layers of
paint. Hassam did little blending of the paint in this piece, much like The Brush House, and each stroke is visible, from the lightest marks to the most heavily saturated strokes. Later
generations of artists can see the master’s hand at work and learn from every
|The Mall, Central Park
by Maurice Prendergast, 1900-1903,
watercolor and graphite on wove paper,
22 x 20. Collection National
Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Like the aforementioned artists, Maurice
Prendergast (1859-1924) worked in other media in addition to watercolor.
However, unlike Homer, Sargeant, and Hassam, watercolor was always the artist’s
primary medium, and he was not much interested in the Impressionist focus on
atmosphere and mood—although he did briefly study in Paris at a point when the
movement had firmly taken hold. Prendergast’s paintings show his preference for
creating dynamic patterns of color across his canvas. His underdrawing served
to block in the basic shapes and did not provide much detail, as can be seen in
the piece, The Mall, Central Park. Like Hassam, Prendergast let the white of the paper show
through to indicate clothing on the figures and indicate patches of sunlight.
Prendergast’s colors are applied clearly and boldly, and the simple shapes of his figures bring
this to the fore. Artists can learn from his example how to apply watercolor
without getting muddy mixtures, and how to create attractive color patterns.
“From copying a Prendergast, I learned how he used water to ‘push’ puddles of
pigment to the perimeter of his little umbrellas,” recalls Angelhart. “I was
intrigued by how he perfectly lined the edge of the umbrella in a slightly
darker version of the umbrella’s base color. I figured out that he painted a
spot and then dropped water in the center to push the pigment to the edges.”
In this piece, one can also see how the artist carefully placed the figures to indicate the
natural rhythm and movement of crowds, as well as the creation of various color
accents (such as the touches of reddish-pink in the umbrellas and clothing). From
a distance, the piece is cohesive and the values of color are clear; upon
closer inspection, one can see that the artist employed careful individual
brushstrokes that, when placed side by side, created interesting value and
color contrasts. Because his drawings are simple, one can focus solely on color
mixing and application, which can often be very tricky when working in watercolor.
|The Great Turf
by Albrecht Dürer, 1503,
watercolor and gouache on paper, 16 x 12½.
Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
|A Young Hare
by Albrecht Dürer, 1503,
watercolor and gouache on paper,
10 x 8. Collection Graphische
Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Germanpainter, engraver, and mathematician Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is best known
for his prints, and he was known as one of the greatest painters of the
Renaissance in Northern Europe. However, he
also created hundreds of watercolors that have inspired artists through the years. An early
master of the medium, the artist primarily rendered nature. “His painting The Great Turf was a small but powerful watercolor study,” explains artist Greg Mort. “He spoke about the piece in poetic terms,
and his sentiments show in the work. This piece and the equally famous
watercolor A Young Hare are not what
one thinks of as ‘traditional’ watercolors, in large part because of their
finely rendered surfaces. Yet they were pivotal to what was to be the gradual
climb of the medium from study to finished and polished masterpieces.”
Dürer’s watercolors were created at a time when the medium was used primarily
for studies, and he used it to record his visual sensations of nature. What
made his watercolors so extraordinary was that the artist possessed the ability
to combine a spontaneous response to nature with a technical skill that enabled
him to accurately portray its complex forms. Dürer was first and foremost a
drafstman, and these skills enriched his watercolors. “I think Dürer is very
important for a beginning artist to explore today because he stays with the
fundamental, which is drawing,” says artist Gary Akers. “I begin every watercolor
with a drawing, and I consider the use of drybrush to be an extension of
drawing.” Akers also believes Dürer was the originator of the drybrush method,
and cites A Young Hare as an example.
“It is unbelievable the way he did the texture of the fur, weaving the surface
of the hare’s coat. I strongly suggest beginning watercolorists study Dürer’s
Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.