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walking, painting, blogging - 'taking part in the existence of things'

Still Waters, Dell Quay

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

When was the last time you saw an artist on Level 3 of your local multi-story car park, making a moving and evocative painting of the parked cars? Thought so. Parked-up modes of transport tumble down the list of important subjects for the seasoned landscape painter. Or do they?

Trees, fields, long views, downland, heathland and woodland; all beautiful places to be and compelling subjects to paint, so why is it that I find myself continually drawn, as indeed many landscape artists are, to a parked-up mode of transport? Boats of all shapes, sizes and functions implore me to paint them, especially moored at low-tide, and I'm rarely able to refuse; the lure of harbours, mudflats and estuaries is inexorable.

There is a long and rich tradition of marine painting in the history of Fine Art, describing our multi-layered connection with the sea: admiration of its beauty and respect for its power; a playroom for some, an office for others; a liquid highway to take us from A to B, or for just a quick turn about the bay; places of happiness and places of tragedy. Boats are the intermediaries that make these interactions possible. Without them our access to a watery world would be severely compromised. Where land meets sea, boats are an irreplaceable component and detail of the landscape, bridging the gap between firm and fluid. They have personality. We have a fondness for the little pleasure boats, clinging to harbour walls and estuary mudflats like brightly coloured barnacles. We admire the elegant yachts, lounging gracefully on silver waters but reserve our greatest respect for the fleets of fishing boats: a source of living (and protection) to many in our coastal towns and villages. Our use of, and affection for, these small vessels attracts us to their places of natural habitat: ports, wharfs, quays, harbours, marinas, estuaries and repair yards. Boat-homes for rest, refuge and rehabilitation, and ultimately retirement and rust.

There is much to recommend boats as honourable subjects, but what of their artistic merit? As a proponent of traditional values in visual art, I consider the skill of accurate drawing to be an essential foundation from which artists should develop their work. The result may be a figurative or representational style, but could just as easily be impressionistic, abstract and beyond. However, many questionable draughtsmen hide behind an abstract style and see it as a short cut, a path not trodden by the very best exponents of that art. Consider Pablo Picasso's early career; a more considered and skilled draughtsman would be difficult to find. If you want to practice drawing and confront the havoc that linear perspective wreaks on curves and angles, draw boats. You will experience a constant tussle between what your mind perceives and what your eyes see; to accurately render a boat in 2D and make it look 3D you will need to observe precisely and listen to your eyes. This is the very essence of good drawing, and is one of the reasons that I find painting boats so rewarding. It is a challenge.

As the tide recedes it deposits boats in the shallows, or grounds them on shores, beaches and mudflats, arbitrarily arranged as a haphazard collection of shapes. It is this lack of order and the interesting variety of surfaces and spaces which light can shine onto, or through, that appeals to the artist. With a little thought and arrangement it is easy to arrive at a compelling composition, full of contrasts. At either end of the day, when directional light is strongest, artists can base a composition on the highlights and shadows. 'Still Waters, Dell Quay' is structured around the light kissing the side of a small boat in the middle distance, next to the deep red shade of the hull beside it. To accentuate this I omitted a rowing dinghy next to the green boat in the foreground, opening the door for the eye to settle on the focal point.

'High & Dry, Bosham'

Most coastal scenes include strong horizontal elements, none more so than where land meets sea and sea meets sky. Harbour walls, headlands, piers, beaches, jetties and promontories all contribute to this sense of flatness. Andreas Gursky, whose photograph 'Rhein II' sold for just over $4 million, may have turned horizontals into an art form - and/or money - but most coastal compositions will look rather uninteresting without a contrasting vertical to provide relief. Boat masts were created entirely for this purpose!

Waterside locations may not be their prettiest at low-tide, but they are more interesting to paint than their high-tide cousins. The sea plays an important role in protecting the modesty of the shoreline, but twice a day it drops the towel revealing dead fish, old boots, rusty chains, marker buoys, rotten boat skeletons, jetty stanchions, lobster pots and shopping trolleys. It's not a pretty sight, but around and among the detritus are undulations, puddles, seaweed and ropes; helpful compositional tools for the artist. Notice in 'Still Waters....' how the emerging ropes in the foreground describe the shallow water, leading you into the scene. The line of red anchor buoys are also important, encouraging your eye to wander up to the focal point then through to the distant boats, the one on the extreme left preventing your gaze from leaving the scene. Harbours and estuaries are full of these little compositional tricks and devices if you care to look for them. Use them to your advantage.

Painting boats will also reveal your ability to render convincing reflections. In watercolour, despite the conducive nature of the medium, these can be difficult to paint. Those learning to paint often struggle with reflections - as I did for many years - making them too complex and detailed which creates a distracting visual diversion from the reflected subject. Less is more. The landscape at low tide presents a range of reflective surfaces: the sea and river, their stillness often broken by the breeze; sunlit, highly reflective puddles, glass-like; wet sand and mud, offering a faint and muted reflection. Mirrors of varying intensity for us to see boat hulls, fishermen, mooring posts, marker buoys and seagulls upside down. The Upside Down? Sorry, it's a Stranger Things thing! Noticing these subtle differences takes careful observation, but helps to lend a strong visual interest to a painting.

My local Sussex coast presents many excellent landscapes for boat paintings: Rye, Hastings, Newhaven, Shoreham. My favourite by some distance is the area of Chichester Harbour, where Itchenor, Apuldram, Birdham and Bosham offer many beautiful - and in the case of Bosham - famous views of the coast, with a wide variety of pleasure craft to paint. Through the ages boats, even of the most rudimentary design, have been a necessity for humans and societies to access the sea, the largest surface area of our planet by far. The need to use them and house them safely has shaped and defined our coastal landscapes for centuries. I will never tire of painting them, and no serious landscape painter should avoid these wonderful and challenging subjects.

Both original paintings are available for sale - Please message me if you are interested.


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