Channeling the White of the Paper…with a Little Help from Winslow Homer

Robert Leedy, after Winslow Homer’s “Fishing Boats, Key West, 1903″, watercolor on paper, 18″ x 28 3/4”. [To be auctioned off beginning November 25, 2017. SEE BELOW.]

I gave my watercolor students an assignment on preserving the white of the paper. In the same assignment, I had them copy a Masterwork in watercolor.

Preserving the white of the paper is part of a bulleted laundry list I handout to my students at the beginning of every watercolor course I teach. The handout is entitled “What Goes Into a Successful Watercolor” and Preserving the white of the paper is one of twenty or so elements I consider important in the process.

Watercolorists often speak of the medium’s luminosity. The science goes that light reflects down through layers of transparent color, bouncing off of the underlying white paper and reflecting back into the eyes of the viewer. Luminosity also happens with scattered areas of unpainted paper – “holidays”, I call them – and I encourage students not to be so obsessive with covering every area with solid washes of paint; I warn them not to “house paint” which is thorough, mindless back and forth brushstrokes of a wash intended to cover everything. Let the holidays happen I tell them. The painting will not only be more luminous but also fresher.

Unpainted areas of paper can also convey bright light. But it must be in context which means it must be part of a value or tonal system, a relative scale of darks and lights. Volume can be created by painting areas of value around the white, unpainted paper. This also creates a nice visual appeal for the viewer.

Intentionally leaving white paper as you paint also acts as an insurance policy against losing all of your lights. It usually means going back to tone down, or slightly darken, some of these areas to keep the values balanced.  In watercolor, it is always possible to go darker but going lighter is not a possibility without the addition of opaque watercolor or gouache which takes away from the transparency of the watercolor.

Winslow Homer’s painting, “Fishing Boats, Key West, 1903” is a perfect example of this process.

“Fishing Boats, Key West, 1903” by Winslow Homer, watercolor on paper.

The largest preserved white is obviously the hull of the boat and its sail. Homer uses this as a way to focus attention on the boat and give the viewer the feeling that he is looking at bright, reflected light from the boat and its sails which is accentuated by a relatively more dark framing with the second boat and water shapes. The sails are reflected into the water which, along with the lighter shapes of the clouds, carries the whites (or lighter values) throughout the painting. Notice how Homer treats the darks in the cockpit of the boat as almost one, large dark shape. There is not a lot of detail in the shape – only a dark contrast to the bright whites. Homer also uses a bright red for the man’s shirt and the flag above to further attract the viewer’s attention. The end effect is that the viewer is in a shady vantage point and is almost blinded by the bright, warm light reflecting off the boat, not an uncommon sight on a sunny day in a tropical locale.

I was very happy with the results from my students. This is a difficult assignment – not only as you are copying a Master’s works – but you are also trying to do it in a way that emulates his personal style, brushwork, spontaneity, etc.. Not only are you following his path through the woods – you are carefully attempting to step in his exact footprints in the snow all the while making it look as natural as possible. I urged the students to not get so hung up on his exact style but to copy him as close as possible while learning something along the way.  I also painted with them and thinking that there was much that I learned in the process (which easily happens while copying works from the Masters), I asked them to tell me what they learned during the exercise. Some of the items reference Homer directly; others refer to the students themselves. Here are the results (in no particular order):

  • Learned to paint more in a looser style; used more washes.
  • Colors hard to mix; Home used dark darks and a lot of lines (pencil marks as well as linear brushwork.)
  • Homer’s water and sky were very close in value; He is much more complex than the visual simplicity he conveys.
  • Difficult skies; complex painting. Enjoyed loose painting.
  • Much freer and no obligation; Learned to break down paintings by value.
  • Incorporates a lot of pencil lines.
  • Homer is more inventive & suggestive in rendering, color, etc.
  • Color control through glazing; Homer is very spontaneous in his painting.
  • Loose in interpretation; many sketch lines; persistence!
  • He doesn’t sweat the small stuff; a lot of unused pencil lines.
  • Ignores pencil lines somewhat; things not exact (horizon line).
  • Fast working; more excuse to reinterpret.
  • Some details are diminished on purpose.
  • Learned to save whites. Shadows are more subtle than perceived.
  • Variations in water: shadows, color, reflections, movement.
  • Contrasts of light & darks. Unified value areas.
  • Get the drawing and proportions correct. Colors and grays emphasized.

Their paintings are quite good as you will see below.
Click on any image to enlarge.

student work # 1


*Some of these student works may be for sale.
Contact me if you are interested in any of them.
Please click on the image to see a reference # and refer to it that way.

My painting will not be shown in a gallery nor sold in the usual manner. Instead, I am offering it for auction. There is only one copy and I will not paint another one. The highest bid wins. Bidding starts at $20.00 (I think the materials used were worth more than that. Though this is an original watercolor on paper and not a reproduction, IT IS NOT AN ORIGINAL WATERCOLOR BY WINSLOW HOMER! This is a COPY of a Homer painting by Robert Leedy. Still, a lot of time went into it and it is a pretty cool painting! Imagine giving your loved one an original watercolor by Winslow Homer Robert Leedy for Christmas! Happy Bidding!

eBay Auction begins
11 pm, November 25, 2017
and ends
11 pm, December 5, 2017


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