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Kristi Dahm
Kristi Dahm is associate conservator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dahm, Kristi
Dahm, Kristi
United States of America
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Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago
William Frank Gurley, an accomplished businessman with deep interests in art and science, gave the Art Institute almost eight thousand European and American drawings, which included a donation in honor of his mother in 1922 and a bequest in 1943. This staggering collection, filling scores of boxes, formed the early foundation of the Art Institute’s holdings of Old Master drawings....
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Despite its title, the main subject of The Lone Boat, North Woods Club, Adirondacks (figure b) is the cloud-filled sky at sunset. Homer painted the sky using multiple hues and a complex array of techniques including blotting, scraping, and wet-on-wet brushwork. The result is a strong sense of clouds accumulating and dispersing while light shifts and changes across their forms. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
A photograph of Two Boys Watching Schooners (figure a). Conservators commonly use ultraviolet lamps to examine works of art on paper. Certain materials, including pigments, fluoresce under ultraviolet light-that is, they absorb ultraviolet light energy and reemit light of a different color. The characteristic hue and intensity of fluorescence often help conservators determine the particular pigments present in an artwork. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In the nineteenth century, many artists reported mold problems in Whatman papers – the very type Homer favored. These sheets were infused with gelatin size in order to retard the absorption of washes into the fibers; where microbial molds digest this material, weakened or “unsized” areas remain. If the damaged paper is then layered with a water-color wash, these spots, having lost their barrier to moisture, preferentially absorb the color, leaving uneven, dotted passages. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer’s monochromatic watercolor Netting the Fish (figure c). In the latter work, the artist’s goal was to move beyond a traditional, linear approach to etching, translating the fluid effects of watercolor to a copper plate. He attempted to accomplish this by replicating his watercolor manipulations with a series of analogous etching techniques. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Comparing the preparatory drawing Fishing Off Scarborough (figure b) revealed that Homer replicated the central figure group and boat exactly. Such precise duplication would have only been possible with the use of a transfer process. While the artist probably used commercially available graphite transfer paper, he could also have made his own by coating a sheet of paper with graphite. Positioning the drawing over the blank watercolor paper, he inserted the graphite-coated …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Unlike the similar Boy and Horse Plowing (figure b) revealed that the design for the man, horse, and plow were transferred to the sheet using carbon paper (see figure a). In the late nineteenth century, carbon paper was made from tissue paper that was coated with carbon pigment such as lamp black in a gum, protein, or wax binder that released when pressure was applied. The original sketch (c. 1879; private collection) for Man with Plow Horse was reproduced in an 1880 …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer cropped three centimeters off the lower edge of Life-Size Black Bass (figure a), effectively forcing the viewer into the path of the leaping fish. He then centered and framed the bass for maximum effect by removing a total of two centimeters from the right and left edges. The trimmed edges appear slightly uneven and lack any adhesive residue from the watercolor drawing block. Homer presented the fish crisply against a vague and fluid background, as in a photograph …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer painted Stowing Sail (figure b) on December 22, 1903, in Key West, during his fourth trip to Florida. During that month, the average maximum and minimum temperatures were 70 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit with total precipitation measuring 71 inches. These were ideal conditions for painting outdoors, and everything about this watercolor points toward rapid, plein-air execution. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer altered the position of the shipwrecked man’s proper right arm in After the Hurricane, Bahamas (figure b). Initially, he painted the arm bent at the elbow with the wrist elevated and bent forward. Then he scraped away the paint in the area of the elbow and foreshortened the arm as he repainted it (see figure a). Roughened fibers and brown and black pigments remain in the scraped area. To camouflage the change, the artist added strands of beach grass. This decision may have …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer’s detailed underdrawing for A Garden in Nassau (figure a), reveals that he initially drew two figures to the left of the gate; climbing the wall to pick coconuts, they do not appear in the final work. Examination of the surface indicates that the artist painted the figures, at least with preliminary washes, and then erased the area by scraping, leaving partial outlines of the forms behind. Nineteenth-century watercolor manuals discussed scraping as a means to …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
AAn infrared image of the graphite underdrawing for The Gulf Stream (figure b). In the infrared view, faint pencil lines run across the lower portion of the boat deck from lower left (near the shark’s fin) to upper right, ending halfway up the stern. Two more faint lines arch outward from a drain in the back of the boat, which is pictured as a rectangle near the center of the stern. These were meant to indicate the water’s higher level on the deck and its consequent flow out …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
English watercolor artists of Homer’s era commonly used sandpaper as a reductive tool. One popular authority wrote that, when “carefully employed,” it “is one of the most successful ways by which atmosphere is given to dark and clouded skies.” Homer used sandpaper to tease out clouds and mist from an even, blue-gray sky in Prout's Neck, Breakers (figure b). Noninvasive analysis of the work's surface revealed that silica, a sandpaper residue, is present throughout the sheet. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
With a flick of his knife tip, Homer placed a white glint in the eye of Rufus Wallace, the subject of Adirondacks Guide (figure a). After years of scraping and otherwise manipulating his watercolors, the artist was capable of incredible control and precision. He would have known how much resistance to expect from the stiffly sized linen paper fibers and how sharp his blade needed to be to form the tiny white speck he desired. By offering this minute detail amid the loose forms of …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tête-à-tête) (blotted and scraped away the softened paint to reveal the white paper below (see figure a). A watercolor manual described the general method: “Lights on projecting …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
When executing The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks (figure b), Homer used his knife with great dexterity, drawing upon a range of techniques. To capture the bubbling foam of Whitewater charging over and around boulders, he scraped one-centimeter-wide round marks out of the pink and yellow washes (see figure a). Scraping is well suited to such effects; indeed, the author of one English watercolor manual wrote that, when painting running streams, the knife “produces the effect of …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Aaron Penley, the author of a popular nineteenth-century watercolor manual, explained how to recover light areas from dry washes: “One can readily take out lights, either sharp and decided, with the scraper and knife, or by the usual process of wetting and rubbing out.” Homer combined these two steps, first wetting and blotting the area he wished to subtract, then scraping it. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In Tynemouth Priory, England (figure a). Blotting is perhaps the most basic subtractive technique a watercolor artist can use. A widely circulated English watercolor manual gave these instructions: “Should any… mass be too dark, water may be washed over them, the blotting paper applied, some bread crumbled over it, and then gently rubbed with the fingers …This will remove the superabundant tone softly and give granulation.” Applying water softens a wash, while blotting paper …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer applied touches of glossy, red glaze to the ends of the fishermen’s buoys in The Return, Tynemouth (figure d). He used the gum glaze over strokes of vermillion watercolor, an opaque, matte pigment that probably appeared too flat to achieve the desired effect. Solid, undissolved gum granules in the glaze, visible under magnification, indicate that the artist made his glazes by dissolving dry gum (most likely gum arabic) in water and then mixing it with watercolor. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
A resist is a material that covers and protects a selected area of paper over which a wash is subsequently applied. Once the wash is dry, the artist removes the resist, revealing the shape it preserved. Tiny white particles, possibly residue from a resist, appear across the surface of Campfire, Adirondacks (figure b). When viewed under a microscope, these particles appear as angular white chunks embedded in the watercolor layer (see figure a). …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
When painting sun-drenched Caribbean locales, Homer strove to maximize the transparency of his colors against the white paper. He shifted this practice, however, to paint The Cock Fight (figure b), incorporating opaque watercolors into the work as needed. Unlike his opaque watercolors of the early 1870s, here Homer did not mix zinc white with transparent pigments in order to render them opaque. Instead, he worked with opaque pigments themselves. For example, he used chrome orange …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In The Outlook, Maine Coast (figure a). It appears that the artist covered select areas such as the faint pink clouds at left, the women’s faces, and the coat of the woman at left, and then spattered the entire sheet before resuming his work. He probably accomplished this by drawing his knife across a stiff-bristled brush that was moderately charged with wash. At the lower left, the spray takes on a vertical alignment; perhaps Homer started there and then learned to rotate his body while …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer was always experimenting with different ways of making marks. For example, in The End of the Day, Adirondacks (figure a). To render these blunt marks, which he left in dry, blue-green wash, the artist used a flat brush with a round end one centimeter wide. He may have employed the same tool to paint the black, horizontal strokes in the reflection of man and boat; this is suggested by the round front ends and uniform one-centimeter widths of those brushstrokes. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Using the same media and paper for the 1882 drawings Flamborough Head, England (page 100, figure a), Homer exploited his materials to create compositions rich in contrast and description. The artist chose a soft graphite pencil to accentuate the texture of the laid drawing paper. This is most evident on the sail in the latter work, where Homer dragged his pencil in vertical strokes across the laid lines, creating a pattern imitating woven canvas (see figure a). In the former drawing …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Occasionally, Homer abandoned his brushes and tools and manipulated watercolors directly with his fingers. In Prout’s Neck, Breaking Wave (figure c), for example, he used a rag wrapped over his finger, blotting up the still-damp, dark blue wash to create broken clouds over a violent sea. Distinctive, elongated oval shapes that indicate his manipulations appear throughout the lighter area at upper left (see figure a). At least one contemporary watercolor manual described this …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer painted wet-on-wet throughout Breaking Storm, Coast of Maine (figure b) as he attempted to suppress detail and create atmospheric effects evoking land, sea, and sky seen through a veil of rain and humidity. Working in this manner involves introducing a new wash into one that is still wet, allowing colors to run and blend without solid boundaries. Complete control is impossible, but the unpredictable results lend spontaneity to a picture. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In Prout’s Neck, Evening (figure b), Homer painted a calm sea by applying broad, flat washes of blue. Laying a flat wash is a fundamental technique for depicting sky and water in a landscape painting. British watercolorist Aaron Penley described the process thus: “The brush being well filled, but not too much so, with colour, begin at the top either to the left or right, and before exhausting the contents take a fresh supply, continuing to do so until the whole space is covered.” …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Before he began to paint The Return, Tynemouth (figure c), Homer created a preliminary design, or underdrawing, using a graphite pencil to guide his watercolor applications. Conservators investigate these designs using an infrared camera; under infrared light, many watercolor pigments appear transparent, revealing graphite underneath. …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Among the remains of Homer’s studio materials are two Winsor and Newton “Japanned tin boxes” containing moist watercolor cakes (see page 206, figure 1). The container's functional design and the qualities of the cakes shaped the way in which Homer mixed and applied watercolor, as shown in For to Be a Farmer's Boy (figure c). …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In The Water Fan (figure b), Homer created the visual impression of light shimmering on the ocean by using watercolor paper with a heavy twill texture. The diagonal pattern, which runs from top right to lower left, was produced by the woven wire screen that supported the pulp as the sheet was formed. The truncated watermark J WHAT (for the manufacturer J. Whatman) is legible on the twill side, indicating that it was to be used for painting. The reverse side is …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Homer executed Sunshine and Shadow, Prout’s Neck (figure c) on sheets of Whatman watercolor paper that were bound in a solid block with a gumlike adhesive and gauze of four sides (see figure a). These drawing blocks, as they were often called, were described in an 1855 Winsor and Newton catalog: “These sketch books contain a number of sheets of paper strained and securely fastened at the edge, so that a watercolour picture may be entirely executed upon it, and, when …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In the summer of 1878, as he painted Apple Picking (figure b), Homer followed traditional opaque watercolor technique in order to record two girls pausing in a sunlit orchard. To achieve both brightness and opacity, he used zinc white watercolor throughout, mixing it with and layering it under transparent watercolor. For example, he scumbled blue, pale green, and pink watercolors, each mixed with white, across darker preliminary washes to give the effect of light …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
The pink and green washes in Weary (figure c), one of the earliest works that Homer executed entirely in transparent watercolor, derive their lightness and transparency from the medium’s physical properties. Watercolor consists of colored pigments suspended in a liquid solution of water and gum arabic, which is obtained from the acacia tree. The wash is absorbed as it is brushed across paper, with the pigments settling onto the surface. When dry, a colorless layer of gum …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
In his 1874 treatise on watercolor technique, Aaron Penley insisted, “As no one can write a language correctly before he has learnt to spell and is acquainted with grammar, so can no person be able to portray correctly or readily effects in Nature, unless he has been previously taught to draw.” …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
Winslow Homer began using watercolor as an independent medium in 1873. Throughout the next three decades, he explored a range of styles, techniques, and themes in close to 700 works, achieving a mastery considered by many to be unparalleled in nineteenth-century America. In these pictures, he transcribed nature not only as he saw it but as he experienced it, combining psychological undertones with descriptive evocations of time and weather. The primary tools he used to create these records …
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
American painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910) created some of the most breathtaking and influential watercolors in the history of the medium. This volume provides a comprehensive look at Homer’s technical and artistic practice as a watercolorist, and at the experiences that shaped his remarkable development. Focusing on 25 rarely seen watercolors from the Art Institute’s collection, along with 75 other related watercolors, gouaches, drawings, and paintings—including many of the artist’s characteristic subjects—the book proposes a new understanding of Homer’s techniques as they evolved over his career. Accessibly written essays consider each of the featured works in detail, examining the relationship between monochrome drawing and watercolor and the artist’s lifelong interest in new optical and color theories. In particular, they show how his sojourn in England—where he encountered leading British marine watercolorists and the dynamic avant-garde art scene—precipitated an abrupt change in technique and subject matter upon his return home. Conservators address the fragility of these watercolors, which are prone to fading due to light exposure, and demonstrate, through pioneering research on Homer’s pigments and computer-assisted imaging, how the works have changed over time. Several of Homer’s greatest watercolors are digitally “restored,” providing an exhilarating glimpse of the original impact of Homer’s groundbreaking color experiments.
Print publication date February 2008 (in print)
Print ISBN 9780300119459
EISBN 9780300233629
Illustrations 286
Print Status in print