The Master of the Watercolor Medium
The composition of Road in Bermuda by Winslow Homer is deceptively simple. Yet there is an enormous amount of information packed into this small work. 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 so much 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 waaaaaay down at the base of the road is small, but serves to lead your eye down the path and into the composition. It’s a point of interest but not the center of interest; it guides the eye and adds a sense of scale.
If you can think of an easy, direct way to do something, that’s probably the way Homer did it. Easy because he was such a complete master of the medium. I would 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.
The painting was likely created with a fairly limited palette:
+Prussian blue for the water
+Viridian for the vegetation
+Raw umber to tint the greens
+Venetian red for the figure and the Match Me If You Cans–a reddish plant found in Bermuda
The blue, green, and raw umber would together make a good gray, so Homer 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.
Studying any one work of Winslow Homer is like sitting down to a banquet. So much to take in, from his composition to his color to how he layers one to get to the heart of the other. His work is my aspiration and to learn from contemporary masters about how to create watercolor landscapes akin to Homer’s is one of my most heartfelt goals. From Photo to Fantastic: Painting Watercolor Landscapes with Iain Stewart is the resource I am learning from now. With an emphasis on composition and how to extract the most from photo references, it has given me a lot of great insights. Homer, here I come!