Infrared Detail: Graphite underdrawing

Before he began to paint The Return, Tynemouth, Homer created a preliminary design, or underdrawing, using graphite pencil to guide his watercolor applications. Conservators investigate these designs using an infrared camera; under infrared light, many watercolor pigments appear transparent, revealing graphite underneath.

An infrared image of this work shows the graphite portion of Homer’s preliminary sketch. The artist articulated the outlines and interior details of the fishermen, their equipment, and boat with firm pencil lines; then, lightening his touch, he faintly indicated a distant figure and sailboat. While it is generally considered undesirable for underdrawn lines to interrupt the transparent washes that are laid on top, Homer intended his drawing to remain selectively visible, providing definition and detail. In the final composition, the heavy graphite lines emphasize the figures’ contours, defining the fingers of the fisherman on the left and the facial features, jacket sleeve, and pocket of his companion.

Infrared detail of The Return, Tynemouth revealing Homer’s graphite underdrawing (1.5–1.73 µm).