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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Painting the Antarctic

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica (near Graham Land) at Sunset, Cliff Wassmann.
There are very few places on earth today that have not been visited by painters seeking new and unusual subjects for their landscapes. I suppose very few painters have ever set up their easels and painted (in oils, of course) on the bottom of the ocean. And, one might logically think the same would be true amid the frozen discomfort of the polar regions. If so, one might think wrong. Either from the decks of ships or from the icy surface itself, a surprising number have braved the elements for their art (or at least for the cash and notoriety doing so might bring). One might also think that simply being able to paint under such conditions to be a relatively modern development. Wrong again. Even the earliest expeditions to the Antarctic took with them (in lieu of photographers) an artist to draw and paint whatever the explorers encountered. And, like some the explorers, at least one artist even lost his life doing so.

Top: Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition, 1893, William Gordon Burn-Murdoch.
Bottom left: Antarctic Expedition: Escape from the Bergs, 1842, Richard Beechey.
Bottom right: Antarctic Expedition: Gale in the Pack, painted 1863, Richard Beechey.
Today, those artists who don't paint dans l'air congeal (in frozen air) obviously work from photos (their own or those of others). Nineteenth-century Antarctic artists such as Richard Brydges Beechey, often could do neither. His Antarctic Expedition: Escape from the Bergs (above, left), depicts the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror narrowly avoiding deadly icebergs. The scene, like that of his painting, Antarctic Expedition, Gale in the Pack, 1842 (above, right), of the same two ships, is obviously painted from what must have been a terrifying memory (perhaps augmented by a vivid imagination as well).

Edward Seago traveled around the world several times painting
Antarctica and other remote locations all his life.
Artists today not only have more choices as to their source materials, they travel in modern comfort in much sturdier ships, no longer risking their lives in an effort to paint penguins and icebergs. I'm not saying that painting Antarctica is no more dangerous than a snow scene observed from your dining room window. Far from it, though the adventurous might claim that getting there is half the fun. During the past twenty years several smaller cruise lines have started specializing in trips to the edge of the Antarctic continent, ferrying sightseers aboard inflatable Zodiac watercraft (below) from ship to "shore," though few are likely to be seen toting an easel and watercolors.

Antarctic Landscape, David Barringhaus

Notice the brushes have hollow handles allowing
her alcoholic painting medium to moisten
the brushes from the back.
That's not to say Antarctic artists forego watercolors in such a frigid envir-onment lest their painting medium turn to ice. Maria Coryell-Martin solved that problem by switching from water to vodka as seen in her painting and the spec-ial brushes (lower-left) used to create it. Many Antarctic painters, especially those fond of painting outdoors, choose to work in watercolor and on a relatively small scale to lessen the painting time and thus their exposure to the harsh elements. I notice the flask, which makes me wonder if the artist doesn't take a little nip from time to time to also keep herself from freezing.

Lucia de Leiris, as are nearly all Antarctic artists, is a wintertime painter,
when it's warm (or at least, not so cold). 
Lucia deLeiris (above) is a zoologist, but her interest in science often finds its way into her art. She has traveled widely, painting in the Russian Arctic, South and Central America, Greenland, and Europe. Moreover, she has made three trips to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation Artist and Writer's program. There she lived in science stations and field camps painting, sketching and illustrating. She has illustrated several books, including: Natural History of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Return of the Sun in the Antarctic, George Marsden.
I promised myself when I began I'd not get hung up on the tuxedoed
avian natives of the land; but, Marsden keeps them to a minimum.

Antarctica 2, 2001, Gisela Fabian.
I don't think this was painted on location.


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