Art Book Appreciation: Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light

This is my second favorite non-fiction book of any sort, coming after Beautiful Swimmers, a book about Maryland blue crabs.

This book was an exhibition catalogue issued in connection with an exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008. However, the text is far more detailed than you usually find in such books.

It provides a biography of Homer, a very private person of whom little of his interior life is known. Thankfully it does not engage in any unfounded speculation on such matters, only discussing what is known.

The Art Institute has an extensive collection of Homer’s watercolors and as far as I can tell, they are all included in large, beautifully rendered reproductions. These include his early works in New England after the Civil War, his work in the fishing village of Cullercoats in England, his work back in New England at Prouts Neck, Maine, his hunting and fishing pictures, and his tropical watercolors from the Caribbean and Florida. The works and Homer’s relations to these locations are fully discussed in very clear, flowing prose.

But more than all the above, this book contains something unique to the exhibition catalogues I have been seeing. It has, in appropriate places, two page spreads discussing and illustrating Homer’s watercolor techniques. There are enough of these technique pages that they could have been published as a separate, small volume on their own. Some of the topics include, drawing, painting wet on wet, flat washes, materials such as drawing blocks, wet scraping, design transfer, and revisions. An intermediate watercolor painter with an interest in Homer’s style could learn a lot or at least enjoy playing around with doing things the Homer way. There is also a full separate chapter on the color theory he is believed to have followed and the colors he chose for his palette.

The book is long, and the first time I read it I flew through, sustained by the clear prose and my interest in Homer. I must admit that my second reading for purposes for this review went more slowly.

If you are a fan of Homer or have a general interest in watercolor, you will want to read this book.

Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light Martha Tedeschi with Kristi Dahm. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2008.

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