I must have been a merchant mariner in the 1800's. My Dad was in the Navy and I have always loved nautical symbols, patches and logos. It may explain why I have a passion for painting old wooden boats from sailing ships & fishing boats to cruisers and skiffs. There are so many interesting designs and shapes since they were all hand-made by craftsmen with a vision for a better design. They all have so much character and history of adventure upon the sea.
My husband and I have a 43’ sport fishing boat named "Grouper". I enjoy painting from the boat for an unusual perspective.
And yes, it is rocky but once you have your sea legs and get to painting you don’t even notice. The tricky part is the detail with my rigger brush. I have to get the motion of the water feel and go for it. Sometimes it actually works! If not exactly, it adds to the feel of the painting and I don’t worry about it. (More on that later).
Every time I pull into our marina, I am looking for the wooden masts of a sailboat or old outriggers on a fishing boat to paint. Boat yard paintings are really fun and challenging. They offer all sorts of new ideas for design and composition.
Painting boats is so tricky as they have no straight lines. Each boat is different and the perspective is often challenging. Besides the fact that even when moored, they are moving with the tide or breeze. Sometimes they even leave all together. UGH! Here are just a few tips to consider when painting any boat scene…
BUILD YOUR BOAT
The design of the painting is very important and do not be worried about drawing again and again to get the right feel of the boats. I redraw until I feel it is accurate. When you are in a shipyard, try to get a feel for the large mass. When boats are in the water make sure they sit in the water. The water is flat. The boat needs to sit into the flat water.
As if you were building it, think of it in 3D. The center line and where the mast or flybridge aligns to the hull. Perspective is very important on a boat. Most times I see artists having trouble with getting the drawing correct. They want to draw it as though they were standing on a ladder looking down into the boat.
Pay close attention to perspective! Double check your angles. Especially the bow and stern angles. Boats on the water should not look like the shape of a smile.
FIND THE SUN
If the sun is behind the sailboat, the sail and hull will be in silhouette (darker) and the sky & water will be lighter in value. On the contrary, if sun is opposite the boat, then the sail and hull will be light and the sky & water will be darker in value. Look at this before beginning to identify your value structure, so you can stick with it.
GIVE IT LIFE
Often the sky and water are “blue” and the shadow side of the boat or sail is ...uh....grey? You end up with a lot of paintings that are cool and can be rather boring. How to solve this dilemma? In a water scene you can still have “blue sky and water” but the value of blues, the hue of blue sky and water must be different and interesting.
On the shadow side of the boat, I like to use my muted Purple Haze and make it a bit warmer by adding a touch of my red orange. This applies to a shadow on a sail also. The value is most important. Is the shadow side of the boat lighter or darker than the water? Most likely darker but not always. As long as the VALUE is correct, the color can be varied in the shadow and be warmer! I like to put the bootstripe in alizarin crimson and the mast I may change to warm wood to further add warms to the scene.
Sometimes I will change the color of the sail cover, the fenders, or the sailors jackets. Whatever I can to add warms and reds to a mostly cool & blue scene.
BIT OF REFLECTION
The reflection in the water is usually a warmer version of what it is reflecting. The dark values/colors will look a tad lighter and warmer and the light values/colors will look a tad darker and warmer than what they are reflecting. I like to use raw sienna in the water where the sail is reflecting. The shape of the reflection is important. It has to still feel like water. In still water, you can paint the reflection with downward strokes. Then drag a bit of water horizontally across the top to make it really read.
LAY IT DOWN (& Leave it ALONE!)
Try to get all the darks in first with thin paint and save the thicker paint for the middle and light values. Try putting one brush stroke next to the last and do not paint over the stroke. We want to see your brushstrokes! Fill in all the big shapes. Boats, water, distant land and sky. (Design any clouds specifically to enhance your painting). Then finish up your boats a bit more. Make sure they all have bootstripes at the waterline. Most have reflections or shadow in the water that you want to include to help them sit in the water. Paint the everything with a variety of strokes not just horizontal.
STRATEGIZE & SIMPLIFY
If the scene looks very complicated don’t sweat the details. Stay calm. Keep it simple. If there are a lot of boats feature 1 or 2 only. Group the rest. Just tell us a story by focusing on your subject and the rest of the information is not important, it is merely supporting cast for the star of the show. Really! It will be easier, more fun to paint and make a much better painting.
Just a Little History
Prior to the 1950's, there was little standardization of sailing & fishing boats. Designs could vary widely between ports and boatyards. Boats were all built of wood which, unfortunately, is not often used now due to high maintenance costs and low durability.
Easton, MD is famous for their oyster boats called Skipjacks.
Beautiful and regal sailing ships used to harvest oysters. Power boats called Buy Boats went out to the oyster harvest area and bought the oysters from the skipjacks to bring to shore to resell. This way the skipjacks could stay on location to keep working. There are only a few of either these incredible boats left to paint.
I am on a quest to capture all types of old wooden boats before they disappear. I strive to convey the history of adventure on the sea. I consider the brave individuals who sailed/worked her and hope to instill the character and soul within each historic beauty in my painting. Hope you will join me in saving our ships before they are gone!
Debra teaches a series of workshops that cover these key elements. Please visit her website for workshop information and to see more of her inspiring artwork.