Learn the watercolor techniques—for composition, design elements and focal point—of famous watercolor artists such as Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, J.M.W. Turner, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper.
1. Take On a Unique Viewpoint Like Winslow Homer
In the winter of 1885-86, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) painted a number of striking watercolors while on holiday in Nassau. Popular for its beautiful setting and temperate climate, this Bahamas port was a fashionable resort even then. But in his watercolor, A Wall, Nassau, Homer doesn’t give the viewer the classic picture postcard view. To be sure, the scene is filled with lush tropical colors and striking Caribbean light, but the viewpoint is very unusual. Far from a typical scenic panorama, Homer has blocked the classic view of the shoreline with a thick gray wall. The obtrusive wall not only dominates the lower half of the painting; it also is simple and untextured. The vertical opening into the cool tropical greens and blues of the water’s edge provides the only relief. But even this invitation into the middle area of the painting is situated uncomfortably far to the left and leads us away from the main focal point: the white sailboat.
In addition, Homer has cut the painting in half with two very strong horizontal lines. In this case, Homer gets away with using such nontraditional artistic devises because he has set up interesting dynamic tensions and a strong sense of movement. Notice the touches of dull orange and red on the wall that he uses to harmonize the wall with the stronger red in the flowers above and to create a decisive yet subtle shape in the lower right-hand corner to pull the eye to the middle ground. The play of dappled light on the wall (an example of Homer’s great exploitation of the white paper) also cleverly leads the eye across the wall towards the center. The sky and foliage lead the eye from the left to the right, and the flamboyant red frangipani leaves connect the main areas of the painting as they seem to explode like fireworks above the thick wall.
Setting the stage for modern American painting, this composition has an almost Oriental simplicity, stressing tensions and balances to create a unique viewpoint. Homer’s watercolors are considered by many to be the greatest art America has ever produced. And his knack for challenging the viewer with an uncomfortable or not-so-obvious view is one reason. Another is his direct and energetic execution of the medium. He paints very deliberately and with extraordinary control, but achieves an unlabored look.
2. Master Your Composition Like Andrew Wyeth
In his famous 1948 egg tempera painting, Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth gives us an excellent display of his adept use of compositional devices. In this painting he demonstrates that design elements need not be conspicuous to be effective. Sometimes, in fact, they’re so subtle as to escape your notice, unless someone calls your attention to them. If you look closely, you’ll see two loose wisps of hair that jut out from the side of Christina’s head. These two locks are in the form of curving lines, which echo the nearby pair of tracks that lead uphill to the house. To the upper right of the driveway, there’s a fence that again echoes those lines. On the left side of Christina’s head is another tuft of hair, the shape of which also is echoed elsewhere in the picture. It’s repeated in the curvy line in the ﬁeld to her upper left, and again—this time in reverse—on the opposite side of her head.There’s also a full shape that reverberates in this painting—one that’s quite inconspicuous, yet enormously powerful. The form of the woman’s body resounds abstractly in the shapes of the buildings up in the background. It happens in the cluster of buildings in the upper right-hand corner of the picture. And you’ll ﬁnd it again in the small out-building directly above her at the top of the hill. What we have here, in effect, is an organic shape (the woman’s body) that’s echoed by two geometric shapes. This repetition of shapes is neither accidental nor coincidental. It’s the product of the artist’s compositional genius. And it’s this kind of instinct that great art is made of.
The dominant element in this painting is the seemingly vast and desolate slope, which isolates the desperate ﬁgure sprawling on the ground. (Christina Olson, Wyeth’s model, was unable to walk.) The emphasis, though, is on the ﬁgure. For one thing, the eye is much more likely to be attracted by a human form than by a building. A complex form is also more likely to attract attention than a simple shape, and the model’s twisted body is much more complex than anything else in sight. In Christina’s World, we can also discover Wyeth’s clever use of directional lines. In the upper part of the painting, he uses diagonal lines to lead your eye into the picture and toward the house on the hill, which is whereChristina is looking—and is presumably where she wants to be. The shape of the seemingly stranded ﬁgure consists entirely of diagonal lines, which connote transition and/or instability. The buildings at the top of the hill, to the contrary, are stabilizing elements—particularly the one on the right (Christina’s home). Although their roofs are slanted, they’re more than offset by the vertical contours of the buildings’ sides and chimneys. Thus the structures appear to be quite solid and sturdy. This stands in dramatic contrast to the ﬂoundering ﬁgure in the ﬁeld below.
Wyeth has also used the principle of vantage point and perspective to his advantage here. There’s no doubt that the ﬁgure is near you, whereas the house is far away. This long view, which looks across her and up to the distant house, underscores her state of isolation. And because Wyeth has placed our vantage point behind Christina, we share her desolation, which intensiﬁes the painting’s psychological impact.
3. Take a Direct Approach Like John Singer Sargent
“To live with Sargent’s watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held,” said one of the artist’s many biographers. Indeed, John Singer Sargent‘s watercolors do seem to radiate light. In Figure with Red Drapery, the whole space vibrates with the bravura of his brushwork.
There’s no doubt that Sargent (1856-1925) loved watercolor. From the moment he first studied the masters in museums and fell in love with painting, he used watercolor. The immediacy of it thrilled him. And like any true master, he was able to transfer the watercolor techniques he mastered to every other medium he tried. With a simple tin box of pan colors, Sargent said he would “make the best of an emergency.” His process was simple: First he dampened his paper with a light wash of color, leaving some areas untouched. Then, with a loaded brush, he began to articulate the form of the figure and charge the red cloth with rich, saturated color. He never outlined his subjects at this early stage—the paper would still be too wet to achieve a crisp edge. Instead he sculpted the figure into shape by giving each part of the body obvious medium shadow shapes and dark shadow shapes, while skillfully leaving the lightest areas untouched. He painted the dark side of a shape, along with the area surrounding the shape, wherever the value was similar. As the paper began to dry, he would use dark strokes of paint and accentuate edges to define the forms and show off the light.
As evidenced by his confident brushwork, Sargent was an excellent draftsman, the result of years of constant practice. An artist friend Adrian Stokes, observing him, noted: “When once settled … the rapidity and directness with which he worked was amazing … His hand seemed to move with the same agility as when playing over the keys of a piano … It was a kind of shorthand, but it was magical.”
4. Combine the Real and the Romantic Like J.M.W. Turner
The 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment marked a time when scientists and artists alike were consumed with the importance of observation and study. John Ruskin, the great English writer and art critic of the day, wrote that J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) “used to walk about a town with a roll of thin paper in his pocket and make a few scratches upon a sheet or two of it, which were so much shorthand indication of all he wished to remember. When he got to his inn in the evening, he completed the penciling rapidly, and added as much colour as was needed to record his plan of the picture.” When London’s Houses of Parliament were consumed by flames on October 16, 1834, Turner was offshore in a row boat rapidly recording the dramatic scene in his pocket sketchbook. He turned the pages so quickly in order to capture the scene from numerous viewpoints that the back of each watercolor has a bit of the previous one blotted onto it.
To be sure, Turner was influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, but he was also a product of the Romantic Age (1789-1837), a time when art and science were inexorably linked. Like other Romantic artists, he was not only interested in observation, but also in emotion. His subjects often had symbolic overtones and his brushwork was as subjective as it was objective. When Turner painted this great monument ablaze it was not the detail that he focused on. He painted the fury of nature’s forces. In his hands, fire, water and the smoke-filled sky became an apocalyptic event. When you look at the series of sketches of the fire that he did on site, you can see where he literally attacked the paper with furious brushstrokes. And in The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, a study done one year later, Turner is still exploring the theme of nature’s fury and developing it into richer and more complex versions. In fact, Turner was so enthralled with the theme he would paint it again and again in both watercolor and oils.
5. Study the Light Like Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) began his artistic career as a commercial illustrator. Of the experience, he says: “I was always interested in architecture, but the editors wanted people waving their arms. Maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” In The Mansard Roof he painted architecture his way. He conveyed form with the drama of light, filling nearly the entire composition with this large, striking structure. Hopper painted the house on one of his many summer visits to Gloucester, Massachusetts, on Cape Ann. The most eastern point of the United States, Cape Ann is often a very windy place. As a result, Hopper often painted scenes such as this one from inside his car. Since Gloucester is an old town, most of the houses sit close to each other and very near the street. The cropping of this image depicts how we would experience the house as we walked or drove by it.
Hopper typically painted his watercolors on location. For him, capturing the uniqueness of a particular day was his true subject. In The Mansard Roof he played down individual features on the building so the weather, the time of year, the wind, the light and shadow, the movement of the awnings, and the play of warm and cool light dominated the scene. Notice the touches of warm yellow that tint the sunlit side of the building and intermingle with the cool purple shadows, painted as dashes of playful, moving forms that dance across the complex surfaces of this house. A master at preserving the white of the paper, Hopper often began his watercolors with a light pencil sketch but always improvised as he developed the painting. That said, he never lost sight of his goal to include only those elements which he needed to capture the particulars of a moment in time.
By Tina Tammaro and Butch Krieger, as featured in the February 2003 and April 2005 issues of Watercolor Magic, which became known as Watercolor Artist in 2008. Find these articles and more on the 2001-2010 Ten-Year DVD Archive.
• Bonus article: 3 Easy Steps You Can Take to Learn to Paint
MORE RESOURCES FOR WATERCOLOR ARTISTS