Winslow Homer Paints Outside the Box


By Darlene Olson|Art Education Major

Artist Homer fanned the gnats from his paint palette in the sizzling summer sun. Painting out-of-doors does have it’s drawbacks, but the lighting of this scene cannot be duplicated in any other way. He mopped some sweat from his brow with his blotting rag and inadvertently smeared some blue paint in its place. He didn’t care. Normally a very private man, he made sure to make public that plein air (outdoor) painting was important. He believed any artist could transform their thoughts and feelings onto paper with boldness, capturing movement with lively richness more rapidly than oil paint ever could. Watercolor liberated the painter in so many new ways. Plein air painting was not a set practice at this time, and that is exactly why he did it. He swirled his brush in the water and diluted his paint a bit more as it was drying quickly in the sunshine. Watercolor was primarily used for preliminary sketches, definitely not final projects. Winslow could bet money on how the critics would condemn him for painting in watercolor. He would make the most of this supposed disadvantage. “He would use (watercolors) with unrivaled understanding and brilliance for the rest of his life, to the degree that he became its greatest master in the history of American art” (Cikovsky, Jr. 53). Homer became a success by transforming adversity into opportunity, achieving his 10,000 hours of practice, receiving special opportunities, and taking advantage of disadvantages that is seen in author Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Outliers: The Story of Success and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

Homer became a success by transforming adversity into opportunity, achieving his 10,000 hours of practice, receiving special opportunities, and taking advantage of disadvantages that is seen in author Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Outliers: The Story of Success and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

Winslow Homer was born in 1836 in Boston. His mother, Henrietta, might have been busy at the easel right before he was born. She was a better than average watercolor artist, who painted flowers and birds. Since he was close to his mother, that is most likely where his interest in art began. His father encouraged him as well, by purchasing art equipment while away on a business trip. Winslow showed interest while he was young, drawing his earliest work when he was 10 years old. He painted with watercolors, maybe gleaning wisdom from his mother. As Gladwell writes, ”It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success…. It’s the best student who get the best teaching and the most attention” (30). This seems to be the case with young Homer.

At 19 years old, Homer’s father landed him an apprenticeship as a lithographer. He carved into lithographic stone, a form of printmaking, designing sheet music covers at John Bufford & Sons in Boston. The two years he worked for John L. Bufford were very tedious but shaped his career in many ways. Gladwell writes that to be a successful composer, sports player, writer, or musician practicing 10,000 hours will lead to mastery. “But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery” (40). This is where Homer’s endless drawing for Mr. Bufford paid off in a different way. During his last year working at Bufford & Sons, he drew a new portrait every day. By the time he was 20 years old, he was a master lithographer.

Homer became a free-lance illustrator after being liberated from his apprenticeship bondage in 1857. He rented a studio, having set in his mind to never have an overseer again. Being your own boss can be a disadvantage since this was exactly what his father advised him not to do. He was an illustrator for Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. While there, his talents didn’t go unnoticed by Harper’s Weekly — this is where his disadvantage transforms into an advantage — for which he did several drawings. In 1859, Homer moved to New York, working more steadily for Harper’s Weekly. His family remained in Belmont, Massachusetts. Winslow’s illustrations stood apart from other artists due to his individual style and simplicity.

Comparable to Homer in that he refused to follow the mainstream with his art, Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei was a rebel just for turning his telescope heavenward. In 1609 everyone trusted what Aristotle wrote about the universe, there was nothing more to learn. After all, astronomers weren’t supposed to find out anything new, just make predictions. Supported by the powerful Medici family, Galileo published his book The Starry Messenger. It was popular enough to sell all 500 copies in a few months. This drew the attention of the Catholic Church as it had merged it’s teachings with Aristotelian ideas. This view of the sun being the center of the world — which was opposite of what the scripture teaches — was heresy. Galileo was so far ahead of any astronomers of his time, his talent and discoveries weren’t appreciated. Homer’s style of leaving his paintings with a rough-around-the-edges appearance enraged his critics. He didn’t care and left them scratching their heads in dismay.

Homer was in the right place at the right time. Just as his professional artistic career began to bloom, the Civil War started. Homer was sent to the battlefield for Harper’s to cover this event. This phenomenon was the greatest art school he could have been trained at, teaching him to be a keen observer. “The war was instrumental in determining the kind of artist Homer became. It determined that in a different way by calling upon Homer’s powers of innovation and interpretation to a degree that a more normal subject would not have done. An event less unprecedented — less intensely modern — could not have made the same urgent demands upon his inventiveness and his artistic intelligence; one less historically momentous and nationally traumatic would not as fully aroused his convictions and depend his understanding” (Cikovsky 15).

The tried and true method for any artist to sell his work was to take commissions. Winslow never did, especially after his exposure to working for slave wages at Bufford’s during his apprenticeship. He relied on the open market to sell his paintings to dealers or through exhibitions. He had the disadvantage of having no experience in this field. Homer took advantage of his disadvantage transforming himself into a businessman, learning new forms of marketing and selling through venues of private clubs and expositions. A few collectors assisted him in selling his works by showing his paintings where other collectors might be found.

Just as Homer remade himself into an art salesman, Vivek Renadive developed into a successful basketball coach. Gladwell writes about his story in David and Goliath. He didn’t even know how to play basketball, as he grew up playing soccer and cricket in his native land of Mumbai. His daughter’s basketball team needed his help oh, so badly. Most of the basketball players were inept, not very tall, daughters of computer nerds who fancied the more intellectual side of life. He would not accept defeat easily having immigrated to this country as a teenager with little money. These 12-year-olds knew their disadvantages and played in such a way that could hide that fact with a good defense. Game after game of using the tactic of the full-court press, they won their way to nationals. No other teams even dreamed of taking advantage of the full-court press. Ranadive had the disadvantage of having never played basketball in his life but made a U-turn and remodeled some geeky basketball players into winners.

In the 1870s Winslow Homer underwent personal crises that pushed him into reclusiveness. He was even rude to his fellow artist friends. He embarked on a 2 year sabbatical to England, living in a house in the fishing community of Cullercoats. His art and style was transfigured during his retreat. He observed a new way of life as the fishermen and their families battled the sea to make a living. He toured the British Museum and gathered ideas from the Greek classical sculpture. His painting became exclusively watercolors, using larger pieces of paper, more dramatic subjects, his paintings achieved a more complete look. Homer converted this adversity into an opportunity to grow as an artist. Instead of reinventing himself with the latest style, he looked back in time to artistic tradition. Homer transposed his drawing to be more careful and deliberate. His sketches weren’t just pencil studies but had matured into the process of painting a picture.

Ten miles south of Portland is a bustling community called Prout’s Neck in Maine. Both of Homer’s brothers bought property there. He picked the carriage house and had it moved to a location of his liking. This became his studio where his most well known pieces were painted. In 1883 he removed himself from society to this retreat near the sea. Flourishing on this lonely, rugged life, Winslow was able to throw himself into his work. As a wealthy bachelor he was not distracted by a wife or children toddling about. Just to make sure, he grabbed his hand-painted sign that read, “Snakes, snakes and mice” and placed it on the walking path in case any onlookers became curious. He continued treading the trail from his studio towards the coast with his pencil and sketchbook in tow. He found a suitable rock to sit on that faced eastward and looked out over the water. He imagined a fisherman alone riding the choppy waves looking back over his shoulder at an oncoming storm. He started sketching the boat, then the fisherman quickly, before he could forget his vision. What would the man have in his boat? He needed to be weary from fishing, so the boat must have at least a few fish. His subject is rowing with an ominous fog bank looming closer from the distance. Normally there’s some islands in that area, so Winslow would omit them so the fisherman seemed to truly be in danger. The salty air blew up the corners of his papers and he sketched the few last details on the horizon of his preliminary drawing. Slapping his book closed he scurried back almost dropping his pencil twice. He marched upstairs and began to squeeze out different shades of blue, white, and red oil paint onto his palette. He was a bit hungry and grabbed some leg of mutton he brought from Boston. This studio was the perfect place for reflection, although the winters could be harsh with only one tiny stove to heat the entire space. He needed this setting for self-examination, reflection and thought — the artistic element that guided all his art nowadays. Wiping the grease from the mutton off his hand, he picked up his brush and started painting.

Winslow Homer acquired his 10,000 hours at a young age. Through adversity he learned some business skills that other artist didn’t even consider. The Civil War was the perfect opportunity to fashion his artistic ability that established him as the best illustrator of his time. Would you be able to make calamity into a career change? Don’t give up and throw in the towel! Exchange that disadvantage for an advantage! As Gladwell affirms, “For some reason, this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser” (25).

Works Cited:

Cikovsky, Nicolai. “Winslow Homer.” New York. Harry N. Abrams. 1990. Print

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the art of Battling Giants. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print

— Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company,

2008. Print

Hendricks, Gordon. “The Life and Work of Winslow Homer”. New York. Harry N. Abrams. 1980. Print

Murphy, Henry. “Painting for Money” Winterthur Portfolio Summer/Autumn (2002). pag. 147–160. Web. 12 April 2016.

Ringer, Michael. “Winslow Homer Revisited.” New York State Conservationist. New York State Conservationist. 1 August 2015. Web. 14 April 2016.

“Winslow Homer works make lasting impression.” Mountain Lake Journal Extra. Mountain Lake PBS. 15 March 2012. Television.

Zax, David. “Galileo’s Revolutionary Vision Helped Usher In Modern Astronomy.” Smithsonian Magazine, Aug. 2009. Web. 13 May 2016


Darlene Olson, a freshman at Bethel University from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, would one day like to teach art at a K-12 Christian school after she graduates. She has three adult children and is very impatient to be a Grandma. She enjoys watercolor, Italian food, and horseback riding — just not all at the same time.

What I’ve Learned:

You don’t need to have a teacher lecture or take notes to learn in class. You can enjoy getting to know fellow students while playing awkward games while soaking up something new.

It’s okay to be forgetful. Most the time.

I didn’t think that I could love a book that is not an exciting novel, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David and Goliath. They can be addicting. I’m hiding one in my husband’s suitcase for his upcoming trip.

Reading (and writing for that matter) can be way more interesting when you break the rules.

Getting up before dawn and working hard to provide for your family can make a big impact in many ways. It is a success story in itself.

Bringing Panera bagels to College Writing class makes students happy.

Artist Winslow Homer repeatedly would not go with the mainstream artists of his day. Who were his contemporaries? They can’t be remembered, but I bet anyone in this room would recognize Homer’s art.

Bethel students are extremely friendly and kind.

I’m encouraged to read Vivek Renadive’s story in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. He became a successful basketball coach with literally no background in the sport whatsoever. If you can get the right help and have enough determination — you can accomplish anything.

In the movie Moneyball — you need to be asking the right question.

I can write original sentences and find writing astonishingly and thrilling!