Watercolor: Winslow Homer's "Road in Bermuda"

1 Jul 2008

American artist looking at watercolorsHomer Road in Bermuda watercolorJames Toogood comments on Winslow Homer's watercolor painting Road in Bermuda.

by James Toogood

Homer Road in Bermuda watercolor
Road in Bermuda
by Winslow Homer, ca. 1899-1901,
watercolor over graphite on
cream paper, 14 x 21 1/16.
Collection Brooklyn
Museum of Art, New York,
New York.

This deceptively simple composition has an enormous amount of information in it and displays the genius of Homer. It's fairly centered--the house and figure are near the center of the sheet--but the piece is not symmetrical. Rather, there's a balance of unequal weights, which allows for greater eye movement throughout the piece and implies movement within.

And there's a world of things going on. We can tell looking out at the horizon line that we are up on a hill. Homer emphasized this by careful use of tonal values--note how he made the tonal value of the road lighter than even the lightest part of the sky, making the road look extremely bright. You almost need sunglasses to look at it, yet it's still not the lightest light in the painting--that is the white roof, typical of Bermuda homes. The enormous value range is what gives the feeling of abundant sunshine to the painting. The rich contrast between the road and the shadow reinforces the feeling of light and allows him to go even darker in the foliage.

Notice how the figure is small, but serves to lead your eye down the road and into the composition. It's a point of interest but not the center of interest; it guides the eye and also adds a sense of scale.

It's also worth noting Homer's economical handling of issues--if you can think of a facile, direct way to do something, that's probably the way Homer did it, because he was such a complete master of the medium. Some of us may take 10 steps to do what he could do in one step, almost without thinking. For example, see the sweep of the shadow clearly describing the ground plane? He has indicated the arc in the road, and by bringing this same brush of color up he indicated the rubble below the wall on the right. Beyond the shadow on the left, it looks like he scrubbed out some of the gray to get a reflective highlight bouncing up from the road onto that wall.

This looks like this was painted with a fairly limited palette, probably Prussian blue for the water, viridian for the vegetation, some raw umber to tint the greens, and Venetian red for the figure and the Match Me If You Cans--a reddish plant found in Bermuda--on the right. The blue, green, and raw umber would together make a good gray, so he would have had all he'd need. We know Homer did use rose madder from time to time, he didn't seem to use it here, although he did on other island paintings. But then again, it's hard to tell--rose madder is fugitive and almost all traces of it would have completely disappeared by now.


New Jersey resident James Toogood AWS/NWS studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. The subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions, he has participated in numerous group shows, including those of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, winning many awards. He frequently juries exhibitions and was an awards juror for the 2006 American Watercolor Society annual. Toogood is the author of Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor, (North Light Books, West Chester, Ohio) and he has written many articles and contributed to several other books. His work is widely collected throughout the United States and abroad, and he is represented by Rosenfeld Gallery, in Philadelphia. The artist teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Toogood also conducts watercolor workshops throughout the United States.

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Carol Winters wrote
on 28 Jul 2008 7:55 PM
Intrigued by Wislow Homer's work