Watercolor: Looking at Watercolors: “John Biglin in a Single Scull,” by Thomas Eakins

1 Aug 2008

American Artist Looking at Watercolor0808laweakins_600x451 James Toogood comments on Thomas Eakins' watercolor painting John Biglin in a Single Scull.

by James Toogood

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John Biglin in a Single Scull
by Thomas Eakins, ca. 1873,
watercolor (and gouache?), 19 5/16 x 24 7/8.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, New York.

One of the first things that I find interesting about this watercolor is that the artist subverts some conventional compositional tenets, namely that one should not put the horizon line or the subject in the center of the canvas. Here, Eakins has placed the horizon line in virtually the middle of the composition, the center of interest begins a quarter of the way from the bottom, and he's centered it from left to right as well. The figure's head, with his red bandana, is smack dab in the middle of the composition, almost like a big red bull's-eye. What has he done to counterbalance all of this, and to give the composition movement? These questions make looking at this painting very interesting.

He's created a sense of balance by placing another scull very close to the main subject—John Biglin—up and to the left of the main scull. Biglin's oar is pointing directly at another group of scullers off in the distance, moving your eye to the background. Then your eye goes to the little sail that is bisecting the horizon line on the left. Your eye then follows the horizon line toward the right to see another sailboat, some trees, and another sailboat on the far right.

Note also how Eakins suggests a strong sense of light, primarily through the cast shadows at the center of interest. He reserved the white of the paper for the sculler's back and has used very little color for the skin tone—just a slight tint so you have a difference between skin and shirt. Additionally, by reserving the brightest lights and deepest darks for his center of interest, Eakins has enhanced the feeling of depth, and put the emphasis on his focal point: the scull, and in particular, the sculler, John Biglin.

The artist was well known for his ability to depict anatomy well, and this is a great example. You can actually see the strength in the sculler's legs, and especially his arms. You see the veins popping, you see the muscles flexing—you really get a sense of the power of this individual. Eakins was also known for his unusual way of applying paint. Typically he used very small marks; he very rarely utilized broad washes. You can see that he did some wet-in-wet painting at the upper part of the composition, but mostly he painted around clouds then went back into them. In addition, the medium listed is watercolor, and most of it seems to be applied transparently, but there seem to be a couple of opaque passages suggesting some use of Chinese white, such as on the sails of both boats in background, in the far right and far left. For the clouds nearer the horizon line he added a bit of color, and he decreased the contrast difference between them and the sky in that area to make the clouds recede. In general there's a strong sense of atmospheric perspective—look at the darks in the background land compared to the darks on Biglin.

When we look at the river, we are reminded that Eakins took a scientific approach to painting the water. For example, he did a perspective drawing for this painting and determined where all the reflections were going to be. Indeed, all the reflections—Biglin's back, the oar, and the boat—have all been very carefully placed in the water, including the big sailboat in the distance, and the building just behind Biglin's head.

One of the charming things about this painting is the sense of tension. He's captured this one particular moment—the oar is out of the water, and you see the rivulets pouring off the oar and back into the water. It's one of the little details that make this painting absolutely exquisite.



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.

James Toogood will be giving a lecture about his work at the National Academy School of Fine Arts, at 5 East 89th Street, in New York City, on October 2 at noon. The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, call (212) 996-1908, or visit www.nationalacademy.org.


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