People once thought the earth was flat. Rather than a sphere, they believed the world to be a flat disk, surrounded by water. If sailors ventured too far out to sea, they reasoned, their ships would fall off the edge of the world.
Today there are people who don’t believe in man-made climate change. In spite of significant evidence, they insist climate change is not real or is a hoax. They don’t recognize that we are heading towards a perilous, uncertain future. Our persistent use of fossil fuels over the past century has flooded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. The longer this continues, the more precarious things will become. Scientists are predicting that if we don’t drastically curtail our consumption of fossil fuels, we may initiate a cascade of unstoppable changes to the planet. It’s like we are on that ship heading towards the edge of the world. Unless we turn the ship around, we are going to find ourselves crossing a point of no return.
Because I consider climate change to be the most important issue we face today, I wanted to make a painting about how pressing I feel it is. The image of ship falling off the edge of the world seemed like an apt metaphor for our current predicament. But instead of a sailing ship, I decided to have an oil tanker, to represent our fossil fuel-fixated society.
I did a few preliminary studies of my idea. I tried both horizontal and vertical compositions. Eventually I chose a tall, narrow shape as I felt this would have the most drama. The ship would be cresting an enormous waterfall, about to slip over the edge to plummet into the abyss below. Here is the study I picked:
After completing my preparatory work, I began working on a full-sized canvas. I started my underpainting with yellows and greens. I intended for these colors to be a foundation that would eventually give my painting an eerie aquamarine glow. The painting developed quickly, as I steadily refined the sky, waterfall, and ship.
Eventually the only thing remaining was to choose a name for my ship, which is normally written by the bow. I usually don’t put text in my art as I find it can sometimes dominate an image. But in this circumstance, I thought it could be a useful to have the name on the ship paraphrase the concept of my painting.
I began mulling over possible names. Words like “arrogance” and “hubris” seem to characterize our stubborn dependence on oil. When I looked up the word hubris in the dictionary, I found a word I was not familiar with ~ Hamartia. The word derives from ancient Greek, and is most commonly used when describing dramatic literature. It means the fatal flaw that leads to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine. I immediately knew I’d found the perfect name for my ship. Not only did hamartia sum up my concept, but it even sounded like an actual name for a ship.
Now that I had completed my painting, I needed a title. I prefer to wait till the end for titling my work as this allows the painting to develop without being restricted by a name. I typically consider words and phrases that can guide my audience, but hopefully without over-clarifying my concept. I think a title should complement or augment a painting, but not supersede it. It’s crucial to find the right balance. If it’s too obvious and didactic, or conversely too opaque, it can compromise the integrity of the art.
I call this painting “Uncharted Waters”. It signifies the unfamiliar territory we are now entering. Our actions have begun to transform the planet. And as the planet grows warmer, the sea levels rise, and weather becomes more severe, we shall soon find ourselves living in a radically changed world, a place we have never confronted before. It’s unclear what lies ahead, but as my painting suggests, our future might become quite treacherous.