Learning from Winslow Homer: On the Stile

I have been taking some close looks at Winslow Homer this past week, and decided it was time to get into his painting through an attempt of my own–a copy of “On the Stile.” His style is a nice blend of freedom and precision, with a surprising hold to it. Given my last post on Quickness, the timing seemed appropriate.

I remember when I last took up painting in high school before turning to history and literature, I copied a Winslow Homer and enjoyed it very much. That was my favorite class in high school, and I am not sure why I didn’t stick with it. I also started to appreciate classical music during that class, and it has since become a staple in the house.

Looking at Homer recently, I found myself at first wondering what the “greatness” was. I think I see it in the sense of immediacy in his Houghton Farm watercolors. He doesn’t waste our attention on extraneous parts of the composition. I think the pastoral sophistication also has a timeless appeal, at least to me, who spent some time with pastoral literature in my last novel.

I wanted to work on a few things in this exercise:

1. Use a limited palette of Prussian Blue, Permanent Yellow Deep, and Primary Red Magenta (all Maimeri Blu). I have relied on the earth pigments in prior attempts, so wanted to understand how I could get good browns and greens with only this palette. I wondered if I could get a more transparent result without the earth pigments. Also, it seemed Homer worked with these three or similar pigments for this painting.

2. Understand how Homer focused on his subjects and where he got a little more haphazard, or at least opted not to spend so much time, so I could better decide how to do the same in my paintings. I was struck by how much the perception of his paintings can change when viewed over a short period of time. At first they’re compelling, then they seem flat, then, upon closer study they become very interesting, far beyond the first impression. For example, the girl’s dress has a lot going on in his painting, and it seems so effortless.

I am reminded of one of the selling points of creative writing programs: even if you don’t make it as a writer, you will be a better reader. This exercise has made me a better reader of Homer’s paintings.



Festina Lente: Cycling, Leopardi, and Galileo

Speed and conciseness of style please us because they present the mind with a rush of ideas that are simultaneous, or follow each other so quickly they seem simultaneous, and set the mind afloat on such an abundance of thoughts or images or spiritual feelings…
– Giacomo Leopardi

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.
– Galileo

I was thinking about Calvino’s essay on Quickness while biking this morning, in particular the quotes from Leopardi and Galileo. Calvino explains that the horse has long been a metaphor for speed of thought in literature. I suppose a road bike is a decent substitute. In both quotes above, it is important to note that the speed reflected is that of reasoning or writing, not speed of execution. They are not arguing for Kerouac-like binges. Much preparation goes into achieving the speed of thought. This is why Calvino likes the motto “festina lente,” or hurry slowly.

In order to achieve quickness on a bike, one must prepare one’s body. In order to achieve quickness of thought, one must prepare one’s mind. The same is true with any visual art, as my gestural sketch below shows. I executed it in about 30 seconds while holding up my bike. This is not an ideal way to go about things, but I wanted to see if I could achieve both quicknesses at once–in execution and in thought or expression. I think not yet, but it was fun regardless. This attempt, as others like it, will enable a better understanding and execution when it comes to painting, at least so I hope.

Watercolor is a medium that perfectly aligns with the festina lente motto in that patience is so important to producing a watercolor that reads like Galileo’s courser, or Leopardi’s style that sets the mind afloat. I think of this usually in terms of avoiding mud and making a watercolor light, so taking time between glazes, etc, but it also applies to the more apparently haphazard methods of painting, such as rapidly poured watercolor moved around with credit cards and other things, that seem so casual, so easy. This kind of painting quickly as performance, like racing a bike, can only happen effectively with patience in advance to learn the way the paint moves.

It has been interesting and refreshing rereading Calvino’s Six Memos in the context of painting rather than writing fiction. As I tried to do in writing, I need to remind myself again in painting: festina lente.

Thanks for reading.


Brubeck, Alessi, and Zeke’s

My dad got me into Brubeck when I was in high school (though it might have had something to do with those Infiniti commercials in the 90’s), and I often listen to him while I’m working. It seemed fitting to put him on while getting a little deeper into the Alessi percolator and bag of Zeke’s coffee. Paul Desmond’s clarinet and alto sax lines go so well with the stroke of a brush. I have found that listening to music while painting helps me stay patient and not overwork areas while they are still wet, which is something I did with the birdhouse over the weekend.

After preliminary composition sketches last week, I wanted to try a basic view of the objects themselves to get a better handle on the shapes and reflections. I worked on a square block of arches, so I went with a vignetted centered composition for now. We’ll see if it should be developed further beyond this sketch. Below are staged photos of progress.

It was interesting to note how the blue changes color in the reflection, taking on some of the aluminum’s color as well, thus muting it a bit. I also liked the raw sienna reflection of the table top outside of the composition infiltrating the picture. Maybe it is all a bit too blotchy and exaggerated to be a finished work, but for tonight, I am pretty satisfied with what I got out of this more in depth sketch.

Thanks for reading.

Stage 1–Drawing and first wash:


Stage 2:


Stage 3–Finished sketch:


The Birdhouse of Doctor Caligari

I heard a charming and insightful interview recently on the Design Matters podcast. The guest was the man with the coolest name in history: graphic designer Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich. “Graphic design will save you!” is his mantra. There is a lot of good stuff about the importance of design as something that makes people feel happy and intelligent, and in so doing can bring together varied parties represented by the design, and bring together an audience. He also tells a few good stories. In a lead-in for why he wrote his alphabet book Bembo’s Zoo, he tells about how on his wife’s side of the family, the adults only exchange hand made gifts at Christmas. That sounds great in theory, but he and his wife are the only ones who have the tools or the talent to pull it off. One year they received what they called “the Birdhouse of Doctor Caligari.” Nothing lined up and it just looked like a wonderful artifact of German Expressionism.

The only connection between that story and what follows is the presence of a birdhouse, but any chance to say or write Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich is a chance worth taking. Also I like the image of Doctor Caligari as a backyard tweety bird.

The weather is finally turning towards a real spring in the DC area, and I got some plein air practice yesterday while visiting my parents. My dad designed and planted a beautiful shade garden in the back of their house, and I’ve wanted to paint back there for a while. Much of the attention grabbing plants haven’t come in yet, so I picked a birdhouse to focus on and filled in some background foliage to structure the composition. Doing so probably made this look more like a summer painting. I haven’t done much plein air painting, but I enjoyed it and learned a lot from this attempt about patience and trusting myself. While the bird house was interesting in and of itself, I wonder if it draws enough attention. As I look at the painting, I find my eye drawn to the light and shadow on the pole, not the birdhouse. Maybe a little more light on the roof and some darker areas in the foliage would help focus things a but better. That being said, I will feel more confident next time knowing that it came out all right and Doctor Caligari wouldn’t have a great interest in this birdhouse.

Thanks for reading.


Coffee with a shot of structuralism (or is that formalism?)

I am starting to think about a painting of an Alessi espresso percolator and a bag of Zeke’s coffee, a small batch roastery in Baltimore. This is my favorite coffee because it has a wonderful flavor when you drink it, and that flavor lingers afterwards without that harsh, bilious aftertaste. Coffee is an experience drink. The effect is felt long after the cup is empty. Drinking it is a routine, almost ritualistic, that even on a busy day provides a sense of security and optimism when the coffee is good in both taste and aftertaste, or a sense of dread when it is bad. It is the right relationship of taste and aftertaste that make the a good cup of coffee. I wonder if Vladimir Propp has a secret monograph on this subject.

The same idea applies to art and literature. Thinking again of Calvino, some of his stories are most effective while reading (the Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount, and The Baron in the Trees), while others such as The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Mr. Palomar were more interesting to me as memory artifacts. Invisible Cities is for me his most compelling, complete work of true art. I wonder if some of this relates to the structure used. The best reading experiences were structured like more or less normal chronicles. Mr. Palomar and The Castle of Crossed Destinies are deliberately structural in their focus–it it a core element in the meaning, but the story takes a lesser role. Invisible Cities is also structural in emphasis, but the language and story telling levitate the structure to a comprehensive artistic experience.

In preparation for this coffee painting, I want to look at a few different structures with these two objects, and think about how those structures will work with the quality of lightness in watercolor. Some preliminary sketches are posted below. I would love to hear your thoughts.