Painting of the Month: On the Sands by Winslow Homer

This month’s featured artwork is On the Sands by Winslow Homer. It was done with several mediums: watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, and graphite. It’s a moody and understated painting, but there’s a lot going on.

Winslow Homer, On the Sands, 1881
Winslow Homer, On the Sands, 1881

(Click here to download a higher resolution photo of the painting.)

Brief details about the painting:

  • Watercolor and gouache with pen and black ink over graphite.
  • 13.2 x 18.8 inches (33.7 x 47.8 cm).
  • Completed 1881.
  • Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Your Thoughts?

Use this as an opportunity to test your ability to analyze master paintings. In the comments below, share what you think are the top 3 most important aspects of the painting. These could relate to areas such as composition, color, value, progress, brushwork, subject, or symbolism. Once you have done that, you can compare your thoughts with my own in the drop-down below.

Click here to see my thoughts.

  • The different mediums work together in harmony. Each serves a specific purpose in the painting. Watercolor for the ambience and thin washes. Gouache for its opaque qualities. Pen and ink for sharp outlining. Graphite for the initial sketch. One of the downsides of painting in oils is it does not play as well with other mediums. 
  • There’s a dramatic sense of atmospheric perspective, with the people and boats being fainter and more ambiguous in the distance. This plays into the moody atmosphere. On cloudy, foggy, or misty days, the effects of atmospheric perspective are more extreme. It reminds me of my painting Maryvale, Foggy Morning
  • I’m not sure what the context of the painting is, but it doesn’t seem positive based on the environment and the restrained colors. The painting’s name also does not provide any hints as to what the painting is about. It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions. 
  • Activity is concentrated around the middle of the painting. Notice the increased contrast, the dark accents, and the bursts of red and blue. 
  • The bare paper is exposed in some areas and acts as highlights.

11 thoughts on “Painting of the Month: On the Sands by Winslow Homer”

  1. All attention is to the stormy sea with the exception of the woman by the boat in the foreground with a child. The main colors are centered around the two women with children and the boat, so your eye is immediately drawn to them.
    I find it an interesting composition.

  2. You can always learn something from Winslow Homer—especially if the subject has to do with water. He is able to depict the moodiness and drama of the water and humankind’s relationship with it. Homer is constantly revealing the soul of the sea—demanding, unforgiving, exciting and adventurous.
    The composition leads you through the painting. The choice of colors defines the mood. His lack of detail makes the scene more provocative. Since all the characters are women it makes me think they are waiting for a boat to return that should have come back much earlier.

  3. My first impression is the light which seems unstated because of the muted almost monochromatic palette used, not having a big contrast, I guess this is what makes it look moody.

    There seem to be at least two leading lines to both the boat in the middle distance and the yacht in the distance, then the oar in the blue boat leads to the other boats on the shore. It makes one look around the whole painting.

    It’s a pretty loose painting with the pen being most prominent in highlighting the blue boat which seems to be the main focus. Thanks, Dan for another interesting painting of the month.

  4. The things I noticed most were the fact that the only colours except grey are complementary blue / orange, which is used well to draw attention to the nearest boat, and match the sand and near water. I like the diagonal brush strokes on the left sky indicating rain. But the 2 figures on the right bother me, the left hand one looks too dark, and I’m unclear why they’re different tones when they look to be backlit next to each other. They draw attention away from the rest of the painting but don’t really add to it.

  5. one of those days when its hard to see where sea ends and land begins. Very atmospheric with the grey tones. The composition shows the rule of thirds, – sky, sea and land and the placement of the two women with children at the intersection.
    Our eye is drawn to the light area out to sea – it seems as if there are more boats to come in and a general sense of unease suggests there is a delay

  6. I think the painting is about the people, the women and children waiting. All the rest is almost continuous, sky, sea and wet reflecting sand. The air feels wet and salty. The small differences between the different parts of the background are treated with much sensibility, very difficult to achieve in watercolors.

  7. Great painting. Simple yet telling a story, are they waiting for boats to return on this stormy night. Colour muted in this watercolour with the sea residing, clouds low and foreboding, figures standing out.

  8. This beautiful paint portrays the gloomy and dramatic atmosphere of the stage. These women, with their eyes turned towards the horizon, seem on the look out for their husbands’ fishing boats.
    The highlight of the blue boat seems to be the centre of interest attended by these two women standing nearby. The pale blue and muted red color play well with the gray in the water.


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