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"Making Waves"

One rainy day, about twenty years ago, I was sitting in front of a television screen, on which an artist was demonstrating his technique for painting a storm at sea.  He used copious amounts of what seemed to be black and indigo to represent dark clouds, out of which bright flashes of lightning were emanating.  Underneath this dramatic sky was his effort of the sea, which consisted of horizontal streaks stretching the length of his canvas.  On top of this, an indeterminate shape, representing a boat, was plonked, looking like a squashed fly on a badly laid sheet of dull blue formica.  This picture had not even a suggestion of the two most frightening aspects of bad weather at sea, which are wind and waves. 


Thunderstorms pose no greater threat at sea than they do on land.  A direct lightning strike would probably damage a ship in a similar way to a shore-based structure.  Masts might be damaged and it would probably do no good to its electronic equipment, but I have heard few seamen’s tales about lightning strikes at sea.  A seaman, at work on the deck of a ship, would react to a flash of lightning by blinking – it would fill him with little more fear or apprehension than that.  However, every year, all over the world, ships and men are lost because of the action of wind and waves.  I sat and fumed at this charlatan, who professed to be a seascape artist, and his total misrepresentation of a storm at sea.  He just didn’t seem to grasp the concept either of the sea or what creates problems on it. I won’t comment on his painting technique.


I have lived with the sea as my neighbour all my life, and, for most of that time, I have delighted in painting it in all its moods.  I have sailed in it, rowed in it, motored in it, played in it, fished in it, used it as a highway to travel on, explored parts of the coastline, which are inaccessible from the land, on it, and, like most of my fellow Shetlanders, always accorded it the respect it deserves.  If I had been fully fit, I would have made my living directly from it, rather than scraping an existence painting pictures of it.  For those who work on it, the sea can be a generous benefactor, but can also be a tyrannous master.  It is a treacherous beast, ready to consume the unwary as its mood swings from benign, bright and balmy to dark, violent and threatening in the space of a moment.


Ah, the sea!  My love affair with it began early and continues undiminished and undimmed to this day.  Always moving, never still, it has been my joy in all its capriciousness, and I have spent a lifetime endeavouring to depict its waves, and the light, which constantly changes as it reflects upon them.  And so it was that I glared through my television screen at this pathetic dauber and his pitiful storm at sea.  I thought dark thoughts about the executive who had no doubt paid money in order for this rubbish to be brought to people’s attention in the first place.


When I sit down, in front of a blank white canvas or board, with malicious intent to produce a seascape, there are certain things I have to consider before applying any paint to the surface.  These come in the form of various questions.  Where is my light appearing from?  What degree and type of cloud cover do I want?  Where is my wind going to be from – left, right, straight towards me or away from me, or somewhere in between?  What strength is my wind going to be – a light zephyr, a full gale or moderate breeze?  On this will depend the height of the waves and the amount of white breaking water on them.  With these questions answered, I can, with my experience and technique, produce a satisfactory seascape, whether it features ships, coastal features, or both or neither of these elements.  Clients have asked me, on more than one occasion, to paint a picture consisting of nothing but sea and sky.  I was happy to oblige.


In the conventional manner, I start at the top, and begin to manufacture my sky.  The light in my native Shetland seldom descends directly from its source.  It sneaks down between clouds, creating all sorts of beautiful colours on the way.  This phenomenon is even more noticeable in winter, when the sun is low in the sky.  It is a shame that there are so few hours in a winter’s day to witness this spectacle, but, even so, I wish I had a fiver back for all the hours I have spent (I hesitate to say wasted) just looking at the sky at this time of year, as it constantly moves and rearranges itself.  I try to transpose this onto my canvas – even if I don’t get it absolutely right, just the attempt creates a perfectly good backdrop to a seascape.  And the light in summer has a silvery quality, which I have heard remarked upon by visitors to the islands who, like me, spend quite a bit of their time here gazing heavenwards.


For the fisherman, whose whole existence revolves round the weather, the most important element is the wind, and for the marine artist, it is just as vital a feature of his picture composition.  The direction is first to be considered.  There are many amusing examples of the result of neglecting the factor of wind direction.  I have seen paintings of steamships with the smoke from the funnel blowing from left to right in the picture, and the mizzen mast flag pointing the opposite way.  The artist who painted this ship had fallen into one of the basic traps of seascape painting, and doomed his work to scorn in the eyes of any seaman who looked at it.  And nowadays, when there are few steamships still in operation, and sailing ships are used mainly for recreation and training, the wind direction is still as vital a picture component as in the days of Drake and Nelson.  Basically the surface of the sea moves in the direction of the wind, and this is how it should be represented by seascape artists.


Just as important is the strength of the wind, an excellent measure and description of which can be found in the Beaufort Scale, which specifies the various wind strengths and their effects both on land and sea.  The marine artist must look carefully at this when he (or she) is planning a picture, and a dedicated study of the effect of wind on the sea has been very useful to me.  I recommend time spent, either at sea, or on the shore next to the open sea, just observing the way it moves, like the living organism it is, and the changing colours which happen when it breaks.  This sea-gazing might attract curious glances from passers-by and anxious thoughts in friends, but it is well worth it when the results appear on canvas.  I thoroughly recommend leaving the rat-race behind to watch the sea go by.  It’s wonderful therapy even for non-artists!


I could write at length on the subject of the sea and its canvas manifestations, and even more about the people, with whom I am well acquainted, who make their living  from it.  And for those whose workplace is the ocean, many changes have taken place even in my short lifetime.  When I was a youngster, steam trawlers and drifters were still at work, and what tales of wind and weather their crews could tell.  But that will have to wait for another day and other writings – it is a subject worthy of many books.  But all I wanted to do here was to tell a little about seascape painting, a topic on which I can claim to have some knowledge and experience, and for which I am an unashamed enthusiast.


Jim Tait

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