Endurance: or, The Argument for Inexorable Progress
I’ve always admired the genre of marine painting, with it’s ferocious battles and poignant depictions of hopeless shipwrecks.
I’m pleased to be able to say, my painting Endurance is appearing in an upcoming Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolor show, at the Santa Fe Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario. (April 8-May 26, 2017).
In particular, I’ve always been fascinated with the sub-genre of the ice-bound ship.
One of the first paintings that I remember really looking at as a kid (like, looking at for more than a few seconds), was Caspar David Friedrich‘s The Wreck of Hope.
Friedrich’s painting has been associated with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, appearing on the cover of various copyright-free-classics editions. I believe that’s where I saw it first. Most of my early exposure to art was paperback book covers.
The painting was also exhibited under the title: An Idealized Scene of an Arctic Sea, with a Wrecked Ship on the Heaped Masses of Ice.
I didn’t exactly set out to clone Caspar – but that title is quite appropriate to my own.
My other inspiration was Frederic Edwin Church‘s icebergs. Another of my first experiences with a painting that formed long term memories. I don’t know when I saw this first, but I’ve always remembered this painting.
I had read Church painted this from the deck of a ship travelling to the Antarctic. That’s not true – he did it back home, working from his sketches. (Probably with the secret assistance of photography).
I also remember a story that this canvas was lost for years, eventually found in the attic of a boy’s school in New England. This is probably also not true.
Though there’s some evidence that might be a true-fact about an entirely different F.E. Church painting.
I’d written one of my only memorable college papers on Church. Making the argument that in the 20th century, film effectively murdered and cannibalized painting.
In Church’s time, viewing a gigantic painting was essentially an IMAX experience.
A panoramic ultra-real illusion placed before our optic nerves is functionally different than a conventional painting. The brain reacts differently to something that completely dominates our field of view. Soon the idea of IMAX will seem quaint – after VR, and whatever direct-brainwave interface comes next.
Back in Frederic’s day, people would line up around the block, plonk down their coins, and have the velvet curtain drawn back for five minutes in front of his epic canvasses.
Clearly, we’ve missed that boat. Born a bit late for that kind of success as a painter :)
My painting is based (vaguely) on the infamous Franklin expedition, but more directly on the slow destruction of Shackleton’s ship Endurance. His expedition waited for months, camped out on the ice, making futile repairs – pointlessly reinforcing the splintering hull. watching as their vessel was inexorably crushed. Hoping against all evidence to the contrary that the ice might spare them.
I’m sure the debate raged nightly. Start walking south, knowing most of them will die? Could you drag a small boat back to the edge of the ice pack? Or just hold out till spring and hope the ice will part? Maybe send someone back to lead the rescue mission. I wouldn’t want to be one of the people left behind watching the dwindling supplies.
So, I’ve always known I would paint one of these ice-ships – and finally, the time was right.
The truth of the matter is, I was waiting for my own miracle. For my abilities to arrive at the stage where this was within reach.
I’m plagued with an impatience about art. I find it excruciating working on a long-term project. I’m at my best when a thing is finished in under an hour.
There’s a long list of projects that I’ve abandoned, simply because they took longer to complete than my short window of attention.
The key for me, was being able to draw well enough that I could sketch this all in one go.
The old wisdom is to painstakingly draw your image on disposable paper. Working out your composition, erasing or redrawing, whatever is necessary to perfect the design.
Then, you’re supposed to transfer your rough drawing to your pristine watercolor paper.
Some people use a graphite transfer paper. Some shade the back of the drawing. Some project the drawing and trace. Some people go so far as to pounce the drawing.
The fact is, I despise all of these methods! I’m simply unable to transfer a complex drawing without becoming overcome with boredom. Every single time I’ve attempted it, I get a stiff, unpleasant drawing that looks over-cooked.
Finally, I’ve reached a fluency with drawing, that I can sidestep all that rigmarole.
Don’t get me wrong, I did use photo reference. I made a little collage out of various pictures of ice, and an actual photo of the Endurance, and sketched that a few times. That way I had something to look at, and could just do the final drawing directly onto the watercolor paper.
It’s the first time this has clicked for me. That I’m able to look at my rough drawing and my reference, and simply re-draw it side by side – and have it come out exactly the same, but better.
Kind of amazing. But there you go. There *is* a pay-off for years of training :)
Then, there is the ability to paint values in watercolor.
I don’t want to dwell on this. I’ve been banging on for years about achieving the full range of values in a watercolor. If there’s one great weakness to this media, it’s the natural tendency for transparent watercolor to come out too pale.
So again, all I can say is; there is a moment in time, after sufficient practice, when you can simply do this.
You’ve learned the behavior of your pigments so instinctively, and figured out what colors give you the range you need, then suddenly, you can put down a value correctly ‘by feel’. Or know how many layers you can use to get there without killing the luminosity.
I’ve always wanted to make big, epic paintings in the manner of these works I admire from history. And I always thought I needed to discover some superior working method. But for me, it was never a matter of proper planning, or setting aside enough time, or taking pains not to make mistakes.
It was simply a matter of staying the course.
Training (field sketching) and analysis (this blog over the years), and countless partial failures (that you’ll never see), and eventually – reaching the point where it can just fall off your brush.
Thanks for reading this long musing – and next time I’ll show you the one that didn’t get selected by the jury! For whatever reason, they never take my favorite.