Watkins and the redhead

We found these two paintings of a red-headed model in similar pose against a cloth backdrop. Could be the same session with different cloths or simply a favorite pose executed at different sittings.

WRWatkins standing redhead c.1930WRWatkins standing redhead c.1930

Either way, both are finely nuanced sketches from the 1930’s, the first a study of analogous tone, the second of complimentary contrast, each emphasizing the slight, sinuous curve of posture. Both are astonishing examples of Watkin’s skill with the fast and unforgiving nature of direct watercolor applied in real time during a live session.

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Watkins, anti-modernist

In 1937, William Reginald Watkins punked the Baltimore Art Museum, submitting a watercolor by his 5-year old son to a curated exhibit. When the drawing was selected and the prank revealed, the resulting furor made newspapers across the country.

WR Watkins 1937 museum article

The New York Times covered it like this:

W. Reginald Watkins, instructor at the Maryland Art Institute, who contends that Baltimore Art Museum juries select ‘outlandishly childish stuff,’ disclosed today a jury had picked for exhibition a water-color picture for a mill which his 10-year old son did five years ago. “To prove that a jury would select the work of a mere child of five and discard the work of mature, finished artists, I sent in the painting done by my son,” Watkins explained.

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The pastel adds pounds

Mediums impose their own methods. Watercolor is wet, it runs and it’s fast. Pastel is dry, it’s opaque and you can take your time. Case in point: two sketches of the same model, same pose, in watercolor and pastel:

WRWatkins standing blonde watercolor c.1950WRWatkins standing blonde pastel c.1950

The first sketch, in watercolor, was done so fast Watkins didn’t have time to put in all the pounds. But with the leisurely reflection of pastel, we get the fuller picture of the model.

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Watkins front and center

These four paintings from the 1920’s all feature a short-haired model standing front and center. Watkins accentuated her flesh against a green curtain and subtly added red to the body outline.

WR Watkins standing nudeWR Watkins standing nudeWR Watkins standing nudeWR Watkins standing nude

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A signature nude

Ah, the inscrutible mind of Watkins. Here are two paintings from the same sitting. The difference? One is a preliminary dry brush on rough paper, the other gets his coveted signature for a finish. We think both were worthy.

WR Watkins seated nude (rough)WR Watkins seated nude (signed)WR Watkins signature

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Watkins on the side

Six loose sketches of the horizontal nude.

WR Watkins reclining nudeWR Watkins reclining nudeWR Watkins reclining nudeWR Watkins reclining figureWR Watkins reclining figureWR Watkins reclining nude

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Watkins 180°

William Reginald Watkins liked this model session enough to photograph it in a 180° series from three angles—which also allows several views on his studio. The session is from the early 1950s.

WR Watkins blonde model, left angle c.1950WR Watkins blonde model, center angle c.1950WR Watkins blonde model, right angle c.1950

The pose is similar to this painting from the early 1950’s, which could make it the fourth angle (270°) in the series. The draped pedestal is the same, so the background and red cloth could be artistic license.

WR Watkins blonde model, back angle c.1950

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Watkins at the Charcoal Club

A rare photo of WR Watkins teaching a class of the Baltimore Charcoal Club in the 1930’s. That’s him in the dark suit, looking over a student’s shoulder. Apparently, vests and pipes were de rigueur—except for the model.

WR Watkins at Baltimore Charcoal Club c.1930WR Watkins at Baltimore Charcoal Club c.1930

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From Polaroid to paint

More reference material from WR Watkins’ archive. He was an early adopter of the Polaroid camera. This snapshot closely resembles the final watercolor from the late 1950’s. It’s hard to tell whether Watkins painted from the photograph or merely used it to document his sittings, but it’s interesting to see how he embellished the background.

WR Watkins polaroid of model in green sarongWR Watkins red-haired woman in green sarong c1950s

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The blonde in red

WR Watkins painted a blonde model in a red bathingsuit several times during the 1940’s. Here’s a finished study in the collection of Kevin Daniel and an intriguingly unfinished closeup of the same model in faded washes.

WR Watkins blonde in red bathingsuit c.1940sWR Watkins blonde in red bathingsuit c.1940s (unfinished)

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Four of a kind

A good example of Watkins working in series. Here are four paintings from the 1940’s of a dark-haired model he favored. All four are rapid and loosely worked, yet each pairing (by pose) contains one quick sketch and one more defined rendering with additional detail and volume to face and body.

WR Watkins longhaired nude on bedWR Watkins longhaired nude on bedWR Watkins longhaired nude on stoolWR Watkins longhaired nude on stool

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Fast and loose with Watkins

Watercolor is a fast medium. Look closely and all of WR Watkins’ paintings reveal a trace of speed. But he dashed off an especially rapid exercise now and then, a quick sketch in the moment, an instantaneous figure study excluding detail in favor of gesture or quirk of pose. These three examples from the 1950’s/60’s show an efficient use of one or two colors, the wet brush, the elimination of background and a sense of incompleteness typical of fast work. And yet they are unmistakably Watkins.

WR Watkins nude sketch c.1960WR Watkins nude sketch c.1950 WR Watkins nude sketch c.1960

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Watkins does landscape

In answer to a frequently asked question —

“Did WR Watkins also paint landscapes?”

— yes he did. WR Watkins taught painting at the Maryland Institute of Art for fifty years and his output included landscapes, seascapes, still-lifes and portraits. While his lifelong exploration of the nude represents his most definitive and idiosyncratic work, here are a few solid landscapes we’ve come across recently:

WR Watkins tall treeWR Watkins autumn treesWR Watkins herring run park

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Before and after

Hard to tell if these two sketches are the result of sequential sittings, clothed and unclothed, with the same model or whether Watkins simply imposed a bathingsuit over the nude as an exercise.

WR Watkins curly-haired woman in chairWR Watkins curly-haired woman in bathingsuit

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A Watkins holiday

This woodblock card was hand-pulled and stamped by WR Watkins in the 1930’s. Happy Holidays!

WR Watkins woodcut Christmas card 1930sWR Watkins woodcut Christmas card c.1930s

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Ashcan nudes

Many of WR Watkins’ paintings from the 1920s seem rather grim and downbeat despite that decade’s reputation as roaring. Watkins was a colorist, so this choice of somber palette sends a signal.

WR Watkins nude with shadow c.1920sWR Watkins sitting nude c.1920sWR Watkins standing nude c.1920sWR Watkins standing nude 1920s

WR Watkins sitting nude 1920sWR Watkins sitting nude 1920sWR Watkins sitting nude c.1920s

The twenties were divided between a surface prosperity and social realism, between Art Deco and the Ashcan School. In an earlier post we showed how WR Watkins and Leon Kroll crossed paths at the Maryland Institute, where both taught. (Kroll was a member of the Ashcan School through George Bellows.)

Begun in 1891 by Robert Henri and continuing through the 1930s, the Ashcan School produced “realistic and un-enhanced portraits of everyday life and common people.” Breaking with the techniques taught in early twentieth-century academies, they embraced a rapid, loose and spontaneous brushstroke and a dark, muted palette.

Unenhanced, loose and muted — three words that sum up these period Watkins paintings for us.

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From pencil to brush

A short journey from pencil sketch to watercolor study.

WR Watkins reclining nude (pencil)WR Watkins reclining nude (watercolor)

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Schooling Watkins

Formal dress required, except for the model. Photograph by WR Watkins of his painting class at the Maryland Institute of Arts, c.1930s. Smoking allowed.

WR Watkins studio class c1930

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Watkins once, Watkins twice

Here is a behind-the-scenes pairing of paintings — both of the same model at the same pose, probably made in succession. The first is a quick sketch with only brief color and textural attention; the second, while still loose, is a much more detailed and fleshed out iteration.

WR Watkins black-haired woman sitting (sketch)WR Watkins black-haired woman sitting

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The primitive Watkins

WR Watkins’ figurative style in the 1920s alternated between a sinuous realism and a blocked-out sketchism that looks almost primitive, but in a good way. Here are two of the latter:

WR Watkins primitive standing nudeWR Watkins primitive standing nude

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Watkins does pencil

Four pencil sketches, all from the 1920’s.

WR Watkins pencil nudeWR Watkins pencil nudeWR Watkins pencil nudeWR Watkins pencil nude

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Watkins washout

Here’s a trio of sketchy Watkins paintings from the 1930’s with the washed-out ghostly style he favored in that decade. You can see more examples of this tendency in an earlier post.

WR Watkins nude sketch c.1930sWR Watkins nude sketch c.1930sWR Watkins nude sketch c.1930s

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Watkins à go-go!

Okay, this is the most ’60s-style hair we’ve found on a Watkins model. Nothing more to say, except that it continues his fascination with painting nude backs. See here and here for more examples.

WR Watkins blonde nude from back c.1960s

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From snap to paint

We just found this snapshot by WR Watkins from one of his 1960’s sittings. It pretty closely maps to this painting from the same period, same model. Extraneous objects have been removed but the blanket is still a match. Despite paring the background for artistic clarity, Watkins painted what he saw — the woman has real weight on the stool and the blanket is even blanketier than in the photograph.

WR Watkins snapshot of dark-haired model on stool c.1960sWR Watkins dark-haired woman on stool c.1960s

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The Watkins stare

One of the distinguishing features of WR Watkins’ work is his attention to the faces of his models, which brings them closer to portraiture than figure study. He frequently paints his nudes in direct confrontation with the viewer, something we’ve characterized as the Watkins stare. Here are four examples:

WR Watkins brown-haired woman in striped skirtWR Watkins blonde woman on bedWR Watkins brown-haired woman sittingWR Watkins dark-haired woman reclining

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