Arts & Culture

Spring (Water)colors – Winslow Homer

Spring has come, exams are rolling in, seniors are writing clay biographies, and the trees are turning wonderful shades of pink, green, and white. What better time to pull out watercolors and paint the scenery? A few hundred years ago, watercolor was considered a sketching medium and not fine art. It is the stunning work of Winslow Homer that helped bring watercolor out of ‘low art’ and into ‘high art.’ He “is regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century”. What makes Homer’s watercolors so stunning is his captivating use of color, texture, and landscape. 

The painting “Where are the Boats?” (above) primarily uses shades of complementary pastel colors blue and orange. Using these, the combination of these cool and warm colors gives a sense of harmony and balance to his work. “Long Branch, New Jersey” (left) uses the very same opposition of blues and tans with a more opaque approach. His inclusion of bright green grass and hints of red adds an additional element of color for visual interest. “Where are the Boats?” may seem more muted than “Long Branch New Jersey” at first, but the former also includes a hint of bright red in one of the dresses. Homer’s watercolors often have a common theme of cool, muted blues, underlying warm tans, and subtle hints of brightness. Another example of this is “The Bridle Path, White Mountains” (left). Again, the blues and tans are easy to see, but what about the red, you may ask? Just beyond the rocks on the right, a man in a red shirt can barely be seen. Behind the woman on the horse, to the left, another man seems to be wearing red. And Homer’s signature? Red. 

Secondly, Homer uses watercolors to his advantage as he builds texture in the paintings. Notice how the rock the women stand on in the foreground of “Where are the Boats?” is developed and shaded clearly and realistically with cool and warm tones. The folds of the dresses blow vividly in the wind as the women look out at an empty ocean. However, the background of the painting is not so developed. The cliffs, lighthouse, and sea behind them are only an impression upon the landscape. Because the foreground is so delicately painted, Homer is able to enhance the overall effect of the painting by simplifying the background. Homer does the same thing in “The Bridle Path, White Mountains.” The forward-most rocks are clear as day, and the light shines brightly on the white horse. On the other hand, the men, rocks, and mountains of the background are only an impression. This relates to the final way in which Homer’s paintings are so stunning: landscape. This technique of blurring objects the farther away they get is called ‘atmospheric perspective.’ Additionally, Homer consistently uses three or more ‘zones’ of perspective. These zones constitute the different areas, foreground to background, in which Homer divides his painting to create depth. “The Bridle Path, White Mountains,” for example, has four zones: the forward-most rocks and horse, the far rocks and men, the first layer of mountain, and the faint mountain behind that. Homer’s use of color, texture, atmospheric perspective and zones are an important part of establishing a classic watercolor landscape. 

As I am currently stuck at home, as many of you are, we will need to find reference photos for our Winslow-Homer-esque watercolor painting. If you are interested in seeing reference photos I have complied for future drawing and painting purpose, you may want to check out my Pinterest board:

I will be combining these two reference photos by Travel Horizon (left) and Jens Klettenheimer (right) for the background:   








As I paint these scenes, I will bring out the blues of the sky and lake, the tans and yellows of the field and flowers, and the red of the cottage. I will then be using the following reference photo by Lee Avison for a figure placed in these mountains:









Now start with a sketch combining your reference photos and adding your own personal touch. Use thicker paper appropriate for watercolor painting. The thin paper will warp and tear with heavy amounts of water. I also like to use washi tape to create a clean border around my painting. I used the mountains and the rocks from one photo, the cliffs and the cottage from the other, and placed the woman walking with a basket walking along the rocks. Maybe she is walking back to her cottage across the lake.





Now begin blocking in the colors of your painting keeping in mind the warm underlying tones of the rocks and fields that you want to show through. Create shadows and texture in the rocks and mountains with cool blues. Work front to back and light to dark with your watercolors. This is the opposite of last month’s acrylic where we worked back to front and dark to light.






Finally, add details primarily in the foreground. You will want to spend most of your time in that first zone. I spent a few hours adding details to the rocks and woman with the basket. Then I spent only 15 minutes on all of the fields and cliffs, simply adding texture and more bright colors. The mountains, I almost completely left alone, only touching up a few places and adding depth. Even though my painting does not look as much like a Homer piece as I would have liked, I learned a lot about using color to contrast warm and cool colors and using atmospheric perspective creatively. 




I would love to see your Homer inspired scenes! Enjoy the spring colors, pull out your watercolors, and if you want, send them to me via email at or Instagram @emcardsandcreations 


Works Cited

Avison, Lee. “Victorian Woman On The Moors With Shawl And Wicker Basket Art Print.” Fine Art America. Photo.

Klettenheimer, Jens. “La Belle Vie.” Tumbler, Marky-Queen-of-Arkansas, Anarstarpi, Iceland, Photo.

Tumbler, Travel Horizon, Photo. 

Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Winslow Homer (1836–1910).”, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004,


  1. wow that is rly good!

  2. This is some of the best watercolor ever!!!!!

  3. Thanks, Isaac!