Inexperienced painters often paint what they know rather than what they see. When it comes to boats, this means giving the boat perspective it doesn’t have.
On Friday, I took my class to Rockland to paint boats at the North End Ship Yard. All the big boats were out so we were alone. This was a safe place to introduce boat painting, away from the crowds at Camden. I did this because even excellent painters flub the first time they see a boat. There is something about them that defies reality, that forces us to see them as if we were looking down on them.
The effects of perspective are negligible at the horizon. By “horizon,” I mean your eye level, not that far-distant band where the sea meets the sky, although the two are in fact the same. I personally prefer painting boats from a floating dock, since it negates the effects of the tide. If you’re standing on one, your eyes are only about seven feet above the waterline, or about five feet high if you’re sitting.
That makes a great difference if you are looking down into boats at your feet, as I was when I painted three delightful old tenders on Saturday morning. The one with the ancient engine belongs to the Prophet, and it’s the only one of the three I hadn’t painted before. I chose an angled, straight-down vantage point because the one-cylinder engine in that boat is its defining characteristic. It’s more than 100 years old and still runs in its loud, hesitant way.
Now look at Travellers, which I painted later in the weekend. I was only about 100 feet off her bow, on a finger dock. Still, the waterline is almost completely flattened out, with only a tiny curve.
I found an old photo of Sam and Susan Manning sculling across Camden Harbor that perfectly illustrates my point. Look at the waterline of their dory (which is the same one in my painting at the top). There is perspective there—the boat slopes down toward me. They had just left the dock and I was looking down on them. Now look at the ketch and floating dock behind them. Although the transom is turned slightly toward us, the waterline is parallel to the horizon. That boat is past the point where our height matters.
Travellers was painted for its owner, who was visiting Camden on his way to his home town of Deer Island, New Brunswick. When I was painting it, I found myself attracted to the Maple Leaf, flag of Canada. After I finished my commission, I decided to sit and paint with Renee Lammers, who was painting a complex and lovely view of the Mary Day.
From that angle, the Maple Leaf was right in my face, and its reflection was rippling at me. Having grown up along the Ontario border, I have a fondness for the Canadian flag, which is beautiful even if you’re not a citizen. The owner decided he liked that painting as well. He left Camden harbor this morning with both of them.