Winslow Homer and His Mysterious Red Marks

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an exalted American painter often spoken of in the same conversation as John Singer Sargent and James Whistler.

They, along with Mary Cassatt, John Marin, and following along a bit later, Georgia O’Keeffe, were some of the most notable American painters of the turn of the 20th Century. They each had a love-hate relationship with critics due to their abilities to steer their own courses, and create images outside the confines of standard expectations.

Author Henry James (1843-1916) wrote of Winslow Homer:

We frankly confess that we detest his subjects ... he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial ... and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.

I enjoy all these artists for their independence and especially for their watercolors.

Homer himself said that if future generations remembered him, it would be for his watercolors: ''You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors.''

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1836. He began his career as an apprentice in a lithography print shop and then became a freelance illustrator for magazines and newspapers.

This was the heyday for print publications. Without widespread access to photography, or halftones, in publications until 1890 or later, illustrators were creating images to accompany local news stories, war stories, fictional columns, and for political cartoons.

In the 1870s, Homer continued to work as an illustrator, but began to expand and concentrate on his professional art career. His oil paintings and watercolors earned him recognition from critics, collectors, and galleries.

In 1884, he moved to Maine, and on and off, lived in Maine through the rest of his life.

Homer often seemed to an outsider to be irascible or curmudgeonly. Or, maybe he just didn’t like to be disturbed while he was painting.

To his family and inner circle, he was a “man’s man.” He spent hours on the sea fishing, sailing, observing boats and ships, exploring spots for hunting or camping, and capturing these scenes in his paintings. He often featured other men, as scouts or fishing guides, or Native trackers In his paintings.

He was a master of capturing gesture and pose to convey strength and movement. With an economy of line he told stories in his artwork. The constant deadlines for his magazine and newspaper assignments led to a need to work quickly and to not fuss with details. His work appeared detailed but it was an illusion. His interest in Asian prints and paintings led to combining an illustrative quality with an efficacy of minimal brushstrokes. This breezy style often triggered critics’ complaints that his work was crudely rendered or unfinished.

By the end of the 1870s, Homer’s art was saluted as:

“honest, strong, vigorous, masculine, crude, and uncouth. ...At once America's art hero and renegade, Homer in the 1870s played an essential role as a painter who, with the critics, transformed the concept of a national art.”

Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the I870s, Exhibit Catalog; February 18-May 6, 2001. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. This content originally published in Resource Library Magazine. rev. 3/23/11.

As you see, he got mixed reviews:

"It is impossible to deny Mr. Homer's genius; it is equally impossible to be always satisfied with what he puts on canvas." 
Art Journal 2 (June 1876): 190.


"grabs nature and dabs her on his paper and as you look at his work you feel the blow of the salt sea breezes and shade your eyes from the dazzling sun glare." (about his first watercolors) 
Evening Mail, 18 February 1874, 1.

I studied his paintings to see how he composed them. What did he include in the story? How did he pull the viewer’s eye around the painting?

His paintings frequently included versions of: man and his battles with the sea; man and his love for the sea; man harvesting the bounty of the sea.

His compositional approach was typically to put the main “battle” or focal point in the center, and to have other boats or characters in “supporting roles” watching, or alarmed, or helping. Usually a primary “actor,” a secondary subordinate “actor,” and often something far away in a background were included to help establish the location or weather.

Yet, I noticed that often he includes a dab of red paint somewhere in the painting, just because he wanted to. I mean there is not inherently a compelling need to or logic for something to be red. But he paints it red. Often it is very subtle.

Do you see the red in the three watercolor paintings below?

Why is this?

We can see from the photo of his actual palette that many hues were in the “red” family. In fact, there are eight red-related pigments out of twenty. (See the list at the bottom for more detail.)

The number of “red” options in his palette indicates that red was a color he thought about a lot.

When we think of his body of work, we typically think of all the shades of blues for water and skies, and grays and whites for boats and sails, and the greens and browns for forests, jungles, beaches, and farmland.

My essay on clean or messy palettes discussed Homer's palette here.

But red?

Artists have favorite “go to” colors. For me it is quinacridone rose. I know it sounds crazy, but I tend to see that shade of a “magenta-ish-plum-raspberry” color in almost everything.

Whenever a passage needs to be pumped up, I add quinacridone rose.

For Homer, I think red was his “secret-weapon” hue. He used it differently that I use quinacridone rose. But the concept as a go-to color was the same. You saw the red in the doorway of native hut above, and in the flags.

Here is a dab of red, a little bit harder to see, in the image above of the watercolor crashing against the rocks. In a close-up below, note the dab of red below the big rock

Homer used red to balance his composition. He used it strategically to move the viewer’s eye around the composition. He wanted you to concentrate on the focal point—the big action. But he also wanted you to visually meander around the rest of the painting. If he needed an accent somewhere on his paper, he often made that red.

Even with the sailor tossed on the shore after a hurricane in the Bahamas, Homer added a dab of red to his outstretched hand.

When sharks are tossing a boat in a raging sea, slashes of red are applied to the boards of the boat.

It almost becomes a secret code between you and Homer. Sort of a “Where’s Waldo” to look for the red.

I love Homer’s watercolors, but looking to see if he included a dot of red, is a way to feel a special affinity with him.

In "Red Shirt" obviously Homer will include a red shirt, (But one asks, why a red shirt?) And yet, there is more red in addition to the shirt. A stroke here and there.

Two examples of red sleeves:

Here's another one of my all-time favorite watercolors, "The Adirondack Guide." In this painting, notice the red slash at the left side above the oar. Also, under it, the red-ish reflections in the water.

Thus, the mystery is solved regarding Homer's dots of red on his paintings. He uses red as a magic wand to pull your eye through the composition.

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