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Beneath the Surface

A high-tech investigation helps explain Winslow Homer's staying power

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The frugal Winslow Homer was at his most parsimonious with words—especially when asked to reveal his aesthetic ideas or his methods of working. "I think it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear," he told a friendly writer who proposed a biography. The artist doggedly rebuffed all such overtures, left only a thin trail of correspondence and remained resolutely tight-lipped, particularly about his artistic views.

But his more than 700 watercolors provide scattered biographical and artistic clues. In the most recent investigation into his methods, mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago, a meticulous study focused on 25 watercolors.

Using a microscope, Kristi A. Dahm, assistant paper conservator at the Art Institute, discovered lines of black pigment—from carbon paper—barely visible in Homer's Man with Plow Horse, an indication that Homer transferred the design from another drawing or sketch. He used carbon paper in the 1860s and 1870s to make copies of his works, to experiment with winning designs in various media and to save time—all of prime concern to Homer.

To create the look of foam in The Watcher, Tynemouth in 1882, Homer used green and blue washes mixed with red for the ocean, let the paint dry, dipped a brush in clear water and made swirls in the waves. He scraped soft pigment from other parts of the picture to produce the look of crashing waves, and then let this dry before adding touches of opaque white watercolor to create areas of thick foam.

Researchers found tiny grains of silica—from sandpaper—buried throughout the surface of Prout's Neck, Breakers, a watercolor Homer completed in 1883. In this picture, where waves rumble over a shelf of rocks and throw up clouds of spray, the artist laid in a blue-gray wash for the sky, allowed it to dry and gently sanded down spots of pigment to the ivory-colored paper beneath, thus summoning up the look of mist and spray. Sanding, scraping and similar methods were known to English watercolorists of Homer's day but were seldom used in America. By studying handbooks and perhaps by interviewing English practitioners, Homer paved the way with these watercolor techniques in the United States, where they are still used.

Homer deployed a knife blade to flick a speck of color from the eye of guide Rufus Wallace, paddling a canoe in Adirondacks Guide. The artist's precision surgery, discovered by microscopic analysis, puts a well-placed glint in the boatman's eye at a moment of reflection.

Analysis of several other works shows that time has altered Homer's original intentions, causing the red skies to fade in such watercolors as The Lone Boat, For to Be a Farmer's Boy and North Woods Club, Adirondacks. In each, Homer touched up the skies with a pink madder wash from red lake pigment, which eventually disappears. To simulate the look of Homer's originals, the Art Institute has produced digital reconstructions on its Web site, www.artic.edu/aic/research/homer.

"We did not set out to demystify Homer," says Martha Tedeschi, the Art Institute curator who conceived the project. "But we have gotten some insight into how this master technician achieved what he did with his watercolors—his works of effortless complexity. He made it look easy, but now we know it wasn't."

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