Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Behind the Art: "Gannet Rock Afternoon"

This painting is one that I really enjoyed doing.  I am fond of this particular lighthouse for a number of reasons. First, it is a picturesque structure, the very essence of a lonely sentinel at sea. But I also feel attachment to Gannet Rock, because my great-great grandfather spent some thirty years there as a light keeper during the mid nineteenth century.

Walter McLaughlin’s daily log is now in the Grand Manan Museum.  Several books make up his record of time spent at the lonely lighthouse.  In it he dutifully recorded the lighthouse chores that were his responsibility, but he also noted the weather and the comings and goings of sailing ships and the shipping casualties that occurred with alarming regularity on the reefs and ledges he could see around his light.  Through reading his log, I felt I got to know him a little, and I certainly was inspired by him.

So, painting Gannet Rock Light gave me an especially good feeling.  But not only do I like the lighthouse, I enjoy painting the ocean as I feel it: wind-blown waves with an invigorating breeze whipping up a touch of salt spray.

Anyway, let’s look at a few pointers that this painting can illustrate.

Perhaps the first pointer is a lesson on the horizon.  Always remember that your eye is at the level of the horizon, or at least above the horizon as much as your eye is above sea level, which at the far distance of horizon, is pretty much sea level.

This painting depicts the lighthouse as it would be seen from the deck of a fishing boat, so most of the rock rises up above the horizon. If you were looking at it from a large cruise ship, you might be looking down on most, if not all of the light, and the perspective would be quite different, with the horizon then being above the light.  But looking at the lighthouse from close to sea level gives the lighthouse a more towering sense of presence and strength.

The other point about the horizon is that the height of the crest of the waves relates to the horizon the same way.  If your eye is six or seven feet above the water and the waves are five feet high, the wave crests will be fairly consistently close to the horizon.  Furthermore, the closer your eye moves to the horizon, the less you can see of wave troughs, so you just see bands of white wave crests breaking.

Looking at the lighthouse itself, you can see what I noted in a previous “Behind the Art”, the way that light plays on a white building and on rocks.  The white is never just white: it could be a warm white in the sun, with a hint of yellow and red to warm it, or it could have touches of blue or mauve added to depict the shaded white of the structure.

Because the lighthouse is in the distance, the red is not as bright as it would be if it were near.  This is what is called “atmospheric perspective”. Colours are much less vibrant and distinct in the far distance than they are close up.  So perspective is not just about drawing, but also deals with the intensity of hues you use in your painting.

And I enjoyed painting the close-up sea here.  I like the sparkle of the sun on the foam of a spent breaker, and the pale blue of shaded foam, and the dark mystery of looking down into a wave, into the depths of the ocean.  Painting the sea is great fun, and for me, quite exhilarating.

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