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Endurance: or, The Argument for Inexorable Progress

April 4, 2017

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.


49 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Mullins permalink
    April 4, 2017 11:40 AM

    Unbelievably cool…no pun attended. Your range of colors and values is fantastic. I feel like I need to put on a coat to view this watercolor. Great job Marc!

  2. April 4, 2017 11:41 AM

    Such an excellent post, and incredible watercolors! (The other artists’ work is nice too, but I like yours better.) Congratulations on your well-deserved inclusion in the Santa Fe Gallery show, and thanks for reminding all of us that the holy grail of good art really boils down to Practice.

  3. April 4, 2017 11:46 AM

    This is great! Excellent post and brilliant painting! Thank you, Marc. Diane

    Sent from my iPad


  4. April 4, 2017 11:54 AM

    Great post! Giving the rest of us hope in the process of practice and biding our time :)

  5. Dean Mollon permalink
    April 4, 2017 11:54 AM

    Great story and painting! Always an inspiration.
    Enjoying your online courses. Thanks.

  6. Dom Cuskin permalink
    April 4, 2017 11:54 AM

    A very enjoyable post and a super painting, well done and Thank you Marc. Dom

  7. Rosita Sprohge permalink
    April 4, 2017 11:57 AM

    I absolutely love it. The ice is fantastic. I can just see myself standing out on the ice watching and listening to the ice crunching the ship to pieces. Very dramatic and frightening.

  8. April 4, 2017 12:08 PM

    “It was simply a matter of staying the course.” Thank you for that essential reminder. Lovely painting and congratulations.

  9. Louise Boyer permalink
    April 4, 2017 12:10 PM

    Ou a ou, as in WOW….again!
    Everything is mastered. So fun to look at, and look at…..
    Trying to figure out the colors you used, I can name a few, but there are many I think.
    Would be nice to take another course with you showing this!
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Ann Patterson permalink
    April 4, 2017 12:14 PM

    Wow! And Wow again. Both for the powerful and exquisite painting and for your narrative that sums so clearly and also personally what is needed for a successful painting – about direct drawing and especially about knowing your pigments so well that you know how to get a full range of values. You have used value so powerfully here without sacrificing any of the beauty of waterCOLOR.

    I always enjoy your paint selections and how you select just a few colors and how beautifully they work together to produce that full value range and such a harmony of color. Would you be willing to share what tubes you used to mix the greens in the water and ice and how you got the rich, yet transparent blacks and shadow greys? And those muted but vibrant purples which are so masterfully used. These colors and their value gradients all work so well together to create such a powerful image. And I cannot wait to see your favorite painting that was not selected. It must have been a very difficult decision for the juror.

    And thank you for such instructive and interesting postings over the years. I am always excited to see a new arrival in my inbox.

    • April 4, 2017 12:42 PM

      Hey Ann – thanks for the good words :)
      So, there’s nothing ‘unusual’ (for me) in the colors. My palette is on this page. The dark water is this mostly my dark blues – Indigo and Turquoise – and I’ve think I used some Nickel Titanium Yellow to make the clear blue-green color. I have Quinn Rose to add a bit of violet to the blues. In the shadows I’m using Neutral Tint and some dark earth – Bloodstone Genuine and Raw Umber Violet. to make the deeper darks. On the ship, and in some rocks, I see some traces of Transparent Red Oxide.

  11. Elena permalink
    April 4, 2017 12:37 PM

    This is such a great post. Thanks for sharing your journey and giving inspiration and encouragement to the rest of us sketchers.

  12. Sharon permalink
    April 4, 2017 12:41 PM

    Your depiction of ice is outstanding. I recently viewed “Chasing Ice” a documentary regarding the rapid loss of ice cover at the poles. Two years ago I hiked to Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park. This post is especially poignant with the threat that climate change poses. To say that I love ice is an understatement. Your paintings help me to renew my desire to save the ice.

  13. April 4, 2017 12:42 PM

    It’s great to see your painting here but having seen the original I can safely say that online viewing does not do it justice. There is something about the full sheet that makes you gasp. No surprise that they picked this.

  14. April 4, 2017 12:51 PM

    Can’t add much more to what has already been said. Your painting is simply wonderful. And more. I wish I could see it in person.

    It was good to learn that I wasn’t the only one who got bored if I spent too much time on a piece. In fact, it was learning about smaller sketching and painting in journals through the Craftsy courses that I got back into watercolor.

    And congrats on getting your painting accepted.

  15. Beth permalink
    April 4, 2017 1:11 PM

    Thank you for spending the time writing about how you accomplished this moving painting and emphasizing “staying the course”

  16. daveyone1 permalink
    April 4, 2017 1:28 PM

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  17. Robin Houghton-Flynn permalink
    April 4, 2017 2:50 PM

    Wow that was impressive… he is amazing huh Loved the read

    Peace, Robin

  18. Karen permalink
    April 4, 2017 2:54 PM

    I remember watching a documentary about the Endurance a few years ago and being utterly horrified by the prospect of being stranded in ice like that – kind of like how I remember the moment I realized the horror of being on the sinking Titanic and then suddenly just being adrift (hopefully in a lifeboat) in the middle of the icy North Atlantic.

    Your painting really captures the beauty of the tragedy. I particularly like your treatment of the water, reflections and ice. Beautiful work.

    Thanks for sharing your process.

  19. Maggie Marszewski permalink
    April 4, 2017 2:58 PM

    I have been so inspired by your work, but this is truly magnificent! I am a big fan of Shackleton and anything Antarctic so this painting really speaks to me. In the few years I have been painting I have come to really dislike masking fluid and transfer techniques. I think that learning to sketch has helped me see a path away from that. Still a struggle but I keep at it. Thanks and congratulations!

    • April 4, 2017 3:00 PM

      Oh yes – masking fluid! I’ve never liked it either! Always a goopy mess, and leaving hard edges. I’d rather practice brushwork for seven years over using masking fluid :) haha.

  20. April 4, 2017 3:19 PM

    Interesting reading your process and that you don’t like long projects based on lots of preparation. I used to not like them at all either, but planning one project and having it just there to work on when you feel like painting but not necessarily sorting out a whole new image is great in-between the quicker works. Congrats! It’s a really great painting.

  21. Susan permalink
    April 4, 2017 3:22 PM

    Always wonderful work from your site, but today’s display is outstanding. Thanks Marc.

  22. Morning Waters permalink
    April 4, 2017 4:22 PM

    Wow, just stunning. I spent a long time poring over the details thinking about how you got your lovely colors and shapes. Thanks for the encouragement to practice, practice, practice !

  23. Karen Gillespie permalink
    April 4, 2017 4:38 PM

    This is a stunning painting and truly inspirational blog .Thank you

  24. April 4, 2017 4:57 PM

    Fascinating post and stunning painting! I’ve always been a fan of polar exploration and have read about Shackleton’s journey and watched the film. Also bored by transferring and as for masking fluid, I abandoned it after forgetting it for so long it wouldn’t come off and I had to cover it with bits of collage! Also, Thanks for sharing tips about your palette. 🌺

  25. Susan Edmondson permalink
    April 4, 2017 6:03 PM

    Love your musings, Marc – your sharing is very much appreciated and very inspirational!

  26. April 4, 2017 6:05 PM

    so much of what you are saying is resonating with me Marc. I seem to have the attention span of a flea, and to stick at something laboriously for days and days is not my style. I get impatient and lose my mojo if I don’t get a result fairly swiftly. I’ve discovered sketchbooks as being my happy place where size of paper and the fact that no one needs to see it has emboldened me to experiment and trial. I admire the fact you have honed your skill set to accommodate your expedient style! I am trying to do the same but admit to a rather haphazard and nowhere near as logical way of working so that I suspect my some 30 years of watercolour experience is not near as advanced as it could be. But I am very encouraged by your posts and your articulation of things I probably know but have never thought enough about. Carry on sir and congratulations on the selection!

  27. April 4, 2017 6:19 PM

    Holy Mother of God, Marc! This is epic! The color saturation is wonderful, as are the actual color choices. And the description of your journey towards completing this piece was a great read. Congrats on getting in the exhibition; very well-deserved!

  28. April 4, 2017 7:55 PM

    Marc, maybe it’s just my age, but I did read all of your post.
    Did you say if your painting is here?

    • April 4, 2017 8:25 PM

      Ah yes, the show is at the Santa Fe gallery in Owen Sound ON, (828 Third Ave East). It’s up from April 8 to May 26, 2017.

  29. Babs permalink
    April 4, 2017 8:16 PM

    Hey Marc, I’m so glad to see a post from you. It’s been an extra long time since the last one and I was beginning to worry that something was wrong and maybe you were ill or something. Must say, your painting is so full of emotion, action, destruction, fear and anxiety. What a story. What an experience. What a great work of art to pull out so many emotions in a viewer. Kudos! I’m like you in that I much prefer paintings I can do quickly as I’m impatient and constantly looking for new challenges, whether the immediate one is successful or not. But I’m also all about having a story, if possible, and not just subject matter. To have a wonderful history to your story makes it all the more real and important and challenging, because you want to do the story justice. Congratulations on your selection in this juried show. I wish for you all the best.

  30. E. Miller permalink
    April 4, 2017 9:53 PM

    As a relatively new painter/sketcher, I found this posting very inspirational. No doubt you are an artist/philosopher of a sort. I really picked up on this taking one of your on-line courses. You think forward, backward, and in-between (plunge in).

    Kudos to you. Your painting is magnificent, but to know that it didn’t come easily, reinforces your dedication and passion. Thanks you for sharing, Marc. Congratulation on your success…

  31. Sandra Giles permalink
    April 5, 2017 12:45 AM

    I too love the story of Shackleton’s Endurance and your painting is absolutely gorgeous. Congratulations Marc on your inclusion in the gallery. Well deserved! Just wondering if you’ll ever tour western Canada and teach us folks out here??

  32. Pip permalink
    April 5, 2017 3:20 AM

    Thank you for sharing your lovely painting Marc, and its reassuring to hear that the hard work and perseverance pays off, as it is sometimes far too easy to become disillusioned with one’s efforts. Well done!

  33. Rooi permalink
    April 5, 2017 3:24 AM

    Amazed yet again. Legend master Holmes.

  34. Christine permalink
    April 5, 2017 5:16 AM

    Dear Marc, your HONESTY about mastering the art of drawing is such an inspiration and such a comfort! Your book and your blog are truly a breath of fresh air for me who is fumbling her way toward learning, learning, and then learning some more.
    Thxxx a million from Germany

  35. April 5, 2017 3:18 PM

    You have a magnificent talent!

  36. April 6, 2017 9:55 AM

    Great blog, what’s your opinion on Ivan Aivazovsky the Russian Marine painter?

    • April 6, 2017 9:57 AM

      I’ll have to look him up! Russia has a rigorous tradition so I’m always interested in a new Russian :)

  37. April 6, 2017 8:21 PM

    I’ve been a shipwreck nut since I was five and first heard about the Titanic, then devoured every book on shipwrecks and disasters I could get my hands on at the library (morbid little sh**, right?). But there’s something about the sea and ships, and when things go REALLY wrong. I can’t explain it, except maybe it’s because the sea creeps me out as much as it fascinates me. And the ships–it’s a dangerous job, and lends itself so well to art. Loved those images. Have fun.

  38. April 12, 2017 8:41 AM

    Marc, this is STUNNING. I am really loving seeing how your urban sketching style has influenced this piece, and I’m sure it will influence your sketching all over again.

    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts about process and practice and putting the time in. I think that makes me appreciate this piece even more. Can’t wait to see the one you loved more!

  39. Sof Georgiou permalink
    April 18, 2017 2:07 AM

    Really enjoyable, funny and educational post and a very advanced watercolor. Thanks :)

  40. Angeline permalink
    April 25, 2022 1:13 AM

    Wow!! This painting is amazing, so many details to look at, and repeatedly.


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