Having a Whale of a Time

August 5th, 2015 / 1 Comment »

As do many artists, I am always seeking to advance the development of my craft and my technical process.   I try to challenge myself and search for ways I might improve my skills so my art can flourish.  No doubt every artist hopes that each new piece they create will transcend all their previous efforts.  I believe this is what compels us to keep going, to create new work.  We optimistically believe our next piece could become our masterpiece.  Of course there are good days and bad days in the studio.  We sometimes encounter roadblocks along the way.  But ultimately, over the long haul, it is very gratifying to witness the unfolding of our art.

Last year I had an idea for a painting I wanted to do.  Not only did the concept interest me, but it seemed like a good technical challenge and this intrigued me.  My idea was to have an enormous whale, viewed underwater, shown suspended above an ocean floor covered with sunken cars.  The main challenge I foresaw painting this image was capturing a sense of everything appearing underwater.  I had never attempted anything like this before and I was not sure if I could convincingly paint shafts of light streaming down through water and dappling across the whale and cars.  Additionally I felt the painting needed to be quite large in order to convey the immensity of the scene.  I often find it frustrating working on large canvases as the painting surface tends to flex a lot when I paint upon it.  I therefore decided to construct a cradled panel from a 4’x8′ sheet of luan plywood.  I stretched my canvas over this panel so I could work upon a solid painting surface with no bounce.

6.75"x13", oil on canvas

Initially I created some small color studies to figure out my composition.  My idea was to portray the whale in profile, with its immense body casting a shadow upon the cars below.

charcoal on paper, 27"x53"

I then created a large charcoal drawing of my idea on paper.  This helped me get a sense of the tonality I was after, as well as determine the amount of visual information I wanted in my final painting.  I wasn’t interested in portraying a specific species of whale, it was more important that it simply feel “whale-like”.  The charcoal study allowed me determine the scale I wanted for the cars relative to the whale.  It also helped me figure out how the vehicles would appear strewn across the ocean floor.

After completing my charcoal drawing I begin working on the full size painting.  Here you see me creating the underpainting in a yellow ochre color.


Gradually I began building up the painting, adding layer after layer of greens and blues.  I would sometimes refer to my color studies and charcoal drawing for visual reference.  Figuring out the lighting proved to be the most challenging part of the project.  I found that subtle shifts in contrast made a big difference in how convincing everything appeared.

This is how the final painting turned out.

oil on canvas, 4'x8'
And here is a detail showing the sunken cars.


I call the painting “Leviathan”.  I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.  I like that it is rather enigmatic.  The piece prompts questions more than it gives answers.  For me this painting is about the issue of climate change, which I consider to be the most significant issue we face today.  The sunken cars represent a fossil-fuel based society which has been obliterated by rising sea levels.  The whale is the lone witness to the aftermath or perhaps the metaphorical “elephant in the room”, referring to this big problem that no one is willing to confront.

One thought on “Having a Whale of a Time

  1. I like that you explain your painting. By understanding them, and your process, they touch me more and they feel more powerful and true.


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