Overcome by Hydraulics

This week ‘s tale is of the three-day workshop I took with Stapleton Kearns at the NH Institute of Art in Manchester.  Stape, an active landscape painter, member of the Boston Guild, formerly of Rockport, writes a blog for other painters, and in that blog he had at one time discussed the anatomy of waves and other items of interest associated with the painting of seascapes.  One point stuck with me:  most of the dramatic, wave-crashing seascapes could not be painted on location–the painter, or at least her easel, would not have survived the first crashing wave.  So I already realized we were not going to be heading out to paint waves from life (as if any such thing were available in Manchester, New Hampshire).  I  assumed we would be relying on some use of slides or photographs in order to paint our seascapes.   That’s what we had done in my  intro to waves with Peter Granucci–I recounted that learning experience in my blog of July 17 last year.

I do like surprises.  I also just love being reminded that the mastery of painting is much, much harder than one might imagine, and takes a lot, lot longer than the time one has available.  So, boy, was I ever pleased with this workshop!

First, there were no slides, no photographs to use as reference.  Stape demonstrated on three separate paintings, one each day, how, without any reference whatsoever, he designs a seascape and works in the elements of the sea: waves, foam, rocks.   All three paintings were fantastic  little jewels.  If only each afternoon I could have followed his example.  The first day I mimicked his design, with a decent result.

Theoretical Wave

The second afternoon, I tried to invent my own composition.  The big wave element was not working for me.  Several times I wiped it out and started over–not because I could not construct a decent-looking wave.  After all, the one I had done the day before was passable.  But  this one was too fussy looking.   I was still working on it the last day, near the end of the workshop, so I asked Stape to come over and tell me what I was doing wrong.  He sat down, squeezed out a half tube of white on my palette, mixed in some blues and grays, and pushed paint aggressively all over the offending areas.  The wave is now barely recognizable, but the energy was exactly what I had wanted.

Stape's wave

What a monstrous lesson for me!  I had been so caught up in the hydraulics of wave action, worrying about whether this brush stroke or that one was consistent with the physics of waves, that I forgot to just be a painter.

Stape also had us doing simple exercises, not necessarily related to seascapes.  Below on a single panel are his demonstrations of three of the exercises:

Stape's painting exercises

The top one was a demonstration of how to paint a wave over and into white paint: After a generous layer of white paint is laid down,  you manipulate your blue paint over and into the white to create a wave shape.

The one below and to the left shows the opposite technique: lay down the dark blue paint first, then come in with the white to shape waves.  Sounds simple; looks simple.  Ain’t simple.  Allow me a year or two to practice that one.

The orb in the bottom right was his illustration of the rule that nothing in the shaded half can be as light as the darkest value in the lighted half.   And vice versa.  This rule is important to all subject matter whatever the media, but is easily overlooked when you get lost in waves. Confusion in the waves leads to ambivalence in assigning values–is this spot lighted or shaded?  Stape’s advice:  commit to one or the other.  You start with a 50% chance of being right, plus another 25% from some other logical assumption–wish I could remember what–so taking that plunge with odds so in favor of you has to be better than not choosing at all (leaving wishy washy values).  Even if I can’t remember where that 25% comes from, I shall remember to commit to light or shade, no matter what.

The overall lesson imparted was the one I hate most to hear: to be a good painter, you must paint every day for ten years.   I cannot accept the extremity of that pronouncement, but I admit that I need a lot more practice (especially in seascapes).  Maybe I should just stick to portraits and figures.

Aline Lotter is currently exhibiting:

at the Gallery at 100 Market Street in Portsmouth; at the Sage Gallery in Manchester; at the Hatfield Gallery in Manchester; at the Bartlett Inn in Bartlett; at the Red Jacket Inn in North Conway; and at her studio by appointment.

Link to website: www.paintingsbyaline.com

6 responses to “Overcome by Hydraulics

  1. Hi! Thank you for writing about Stapleton Kearns seascape workshop. He is a great teacher. He is also very entertaining. I remember him painting a seascape in my driveway. For about an hour he demonstrated his seascape painting skill. It was amazing to watch. I hope you continue to paint each day! Painting is such hard work!


  2. I can see I was wise to sit this one out. LOL Way over my head. Escaped Stape’s Seascape … but I would have loved to see him in action.

    I think you captured lots of the right movement in your first seascape. Really liked that one. In my estimation you have made tremendous strides in your short time at the painting game.


    • It was really an important learning experience. Apart from being made aware of the importance of practicing, I also recognized the importance (for me) of being inspired by something–e.g., a memory chip of some sort of a scene that I want to reproduce. What I was doing wrong was engaging the wrong side of my brain, and I think inspiration is what triggers that switch over to the right side of my brain.


  3. That 1st one is commendable! In the 2nd to ME the problem – don’t know if Stape addressed it – seems to be a difference/discrepancy in the angle of the approaching/distant waves and the foreground breaker. Waves do come in at different angles, but not as drastic a change as the photo seems to show.
    Your colors and wave form are looking good. And yeah, it takes a lot of study and practice, especially with seascapes! I’ve only managed one that I actuallylike! Good job!