Beginners: Watercolor Masters

7 May 2008

0802wcfive9_528x600_2 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 past.

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Mink Pond
by Winslow Homer, 1891,
watercolor over graphite on heavy white wove paper, 13? x 20.
Collection Fogg Art Museum,
Harvard University Art Museums,
Cambridge, Massachusetts.
© 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.

Winslow Homer

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.

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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 water.

“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

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Muddy Alligators
by John Singer Sargent, 1917,
watercolor over graphite on
textured cream wove paper,
13½ x 20½. Collection
Worcester Art Museum,
Worcester, Massachusetts.
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Spanish Fountain
by John Singer Sargent, 1902,
watercolor, 20? x 13 9/16.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
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.”

It is 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.

Childe Hassam

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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.
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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 mark.

Maurice Prendergast

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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.

Albrecht Dürer

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The Great Turf
by Albrecht Dürer, 1503,
watercolor and gouache on paper, 16 x 12½.
Collection Graphische
Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
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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.”

Indeed, 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 work.”

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.


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