Tapping Into Artistic Success

Boats and ships are some of art’s most seductive subjects, as Cynthia McMullin can no doubt attest. In her painting John Levitt & Co. she’s captured some of the moodiness that’s almost constant in marine subjects. The light, the wet atmosphere and the exciting shapes demand an artist’s attention.

Areas to Work On
The loose, imprecise handling of the watercolor medium in McMullin’s painting is appropriate for a water-based subject such as this. There’s a buoyancy to the delivery of the image here, but my appreciation for her paint application stops short because of some compositional and structural problems.

With close value statements and lost edges, McMullin has captured the spirit of the docks at work on a heavy, misty day. But to take her art to the next level, she must observe certain fundamentals in the prepainting process. First of all, for a drawing to work, you must take time to arrange the pictorial elements as they relate, first, to the perimeters of the painting, and, second, to one another. For instance, the masts of the moored sail craft divide the horizontal space exactly in half. This type of arrangement creates a static and equally divided spatial statement. Another problem is that by placing the tugboat hull so it just touches the sail craft hull, McMullin has created what I call “a nervous spot.” It would be better to create either a strong overlap at that point or a comfortable, clear separation between the two vessels. In a similar manner, the back building stops exactly at the masts and rigging. McMullin could have crossed over or backed that structure to the left for clearance.

Art Principles At Work
Taking a color temperature. McMullin appropriately used “weighty color” to set mood. Thanks to her color choices, we recognize the time of day, quality of light and atmosphere. But she must take care with her choices so that the fullest darks don’t lose their feeling of color in the unlit areas. The color of light (cool, in this case) must be the opposite temperature of the shadow areas. In John Levitt & Co., the cool, cloud-filtered light could be enhanced if McMullin used some warm colors in the darks of the hulls, buildings and pier. Remember, you don’t need to use the darkest values to achieve dramatic darks; a properly temperature-related juxtaposition of lit and unlit areas is always a more effective way to go. For instance, if the light is warm, the shadow will be cool. Or if the light is cool, the shadow will be warm.

Even a heavily overcast day will still retain a sense of light direction, so McMullin should convey that in her values and colors.

Drawing on reality. The perspective shown in the water level alignment of the dock pilings and the waterline on the tugboat tell me that my eye level is well above water level. But the waterline on the sail craft is absolutely straight, as if my eye were also at water level. There isn’t a sense of the hull shape as it’s enveloped by the water (as seen on the tug). Also, I’m not convinced about the scale of the tug relative to the figures on the dock and the sail craft. Tugs are generally massive. This discrepancy leads me to believe that McMullin may have used more than one reference.

Composing a seascape. To show more clearly what McMullin can do, I reworked John Levitt & Co. a bit. First, I cropped the building on the left, thus focusing eye interest upon the more rewarding, well-painted frontal planes of the buildings and cargo stacks. Then I extended the background building to the right, while I brought the moored boat in closer to the dock. The sail craft is also closer in value to the pilings and the surrounding buildings. I did this in an effort to pull the buildings, dock and boat into a more singly unified whole, rather than have the main elements broken into three separate parts.

My most radical move was to enlarge and pull the tugboat completely forward and away from the complex shape of the dock, boat and buildings. I also rendered it so that it’s moving, with wake patterns providing a thrust into the picture. This step automatically created that essential element of representational art: space. The same is true of having the back building cross well behind the masts. By enlarging the tugboat, there’s now an active focal point. The tug grabs us. The other elements, as handled by McMullin, are a wonderful, quiet contrast to the star of the show.

Both the movement of the tug and the mast/building changes let us see and anticipate dimension. I’ve lightened the forward edge of the dock and the cargo stacks to enhance that same desired effect.

Lessons Learned
McMullin paints from photos when she’s working with historical subjects—in this case, Portland Harbor in the 1800s. She’s captured the mood of the scene quite effectively, but just needs to pay closer attention to color temperature, scale and her composition. On the other hand, I’m absolutely in love with her handling of the sky and the smoke billowing from the tug’s stack. McMullin doesn’t rely on sloppy technique-laden tricks. She just paints solidly, letting the brush and that sacred, wet medium do what comes naturally. I think we’re going to see some great watercolor paintings from her in the future.

About the Artist
Portland, Maine, artist Cynthia McMullin has been painting for more than 40 years. “I continue in watercolor,” she says, “because it never bores me and I have so much still to learn. My goal is to get looser and more expressive.” She received an honorable mention in Winsor & Newton’s 1998 Artists’ Watercolour Goes on Holiday competition.

Cathy Johnson is a contributing editor for Watercolor Magic, The Artist’s Magazine and Country Living. She’s written 22 books, including Creating Textures in Watercolor (North Light Books).

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