- Winslow Homer
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Winslow Homer

"The life I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks."
- A letter to his brother Charles

If one were to list the top ten American artist of all time, at or near the top of that list would have to appear the name of Y. Winslow Homer. (The "Y" stood for Yankee.) Born in 1836, he grew up in New England. After finishing high school, he announced to his family that all he really wanted to do was draw pictures. His father promptly got him a job in a printer's shop. It was the last time he ever worked in an office. The day he turned 21 he just as promptly quit and got a job as a free-lance illustrator. Not satisfied to be merely an artist, he quit that job at age 25 and made clear to the world that he was now a painter. Every Saturday morning he took a painting lesson. That lasted for a mere five weeks. It was the only painting class he ever took.

Escaping his family and anything smacking of civilisation, he chose a lonely, rocky cliff in Maine overlooking the ocean. There he built himself a studio in which he lived for most of the rest of his life. He loved the sea. Along it, he travelled north into Canada and to the tropics in the winter. And, he found the perfect medium for his nomadic sojourns--the fledgling art of watercolour. Though he didn't exactly "invent" the medium, he made it so much his own, his name is practically synonymous with this artform. Until Homer adopted it, watercolour had been largely the medium of colour sketches--preparatory studies for studio landscapes rather than a medium for finished work. Although a few English artists had used it for years as a means of "colouring" architectural drawings, before Homer, it had mostly been considered little more than an artistic novelty for young ladies to "play" with.

Homer often travelled deep into the Canadian wilderness with paid guides whom he astounded by paying them to pose for him--fishing, sleeping, eating, rowing, shooting rapids--all while he sat on the bank and drew, rapidly, pencil flying, paper strewn all about his feet, dashing off one incomplete drawing after another. These he assembled in his tent on rainy days when he painted, often turning out a dozen or more watercolour sketches at a time, a few of which would later be turned into finished oil paintings. It's believed that even Homer didn't originally approach watercolour as a medium for finished works until later in his life when they became popular with local residents in the coastal nooks and crannies where he chose to paint. Whatever the case, he wrote the book that made this medium what it is today.

contributed by Lane, Jim

20 March 1998

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