Painting the Ocean, Challenging the Ocean
by Edward Minoff
I am always struck by a sense of awe when I stand on the beach and stare out at the ocean. Like people, every wave is different, every day a radical departure from every other day before it. I have been looking at the ocean since I was very young. My parents first brought me to the beach when I was a just few weeks old. I have spent some part of every year since then by the ocean, watching during the day and at night, from in, behind, and underneath the waves, and from the shore. The volume of the ocean, the tremendous weight of water is, of course, beyond my comprehension. But I spend almost every day trying to understand and to see it all more clearly.
Finding organization in the chaos of a constantly changing, churned, and windswept sea feels like a titanic challenge. It is far too much for me to put together all at once, so I break down the barrage of activity into small pieces—tiny moments.
It is like identifying a single instrument, maybe even a single verse from a single instrument playing its part in a full orchestra. Like a composer, once fluent in the language of each of my instruments, I try to arrange all of the dissected components of the sea back together into a grander composition—grander than what I might be able to create actually painting on location. The result is a work of pure fiction designed entirely by my own hand and my own understanding—or misunderstanding—of the tremendous energy and forces that hammer away at the shore.
I am keenly interested in how the human eye perceives and the mind deciphers the visible world. I never refer to photos in making my work or even look at photos when studying the ocean. All of my understanding of waves comes from a lifetime spent sitting on the beach and watching, sometimes taking notes and drawing diagrams, other times painting small oil sketches, and yet others simply looking; always first hand. Direct experience. I believe that in studying the movement in real time I am able to focus, not just on a frozen moment in time, but on the experience of being on the beach watching a succession of wave after wave crash. By doing so, I hope to create a feeling of many moments, or of time passing in my paintings.
Michelangelo would have composed his frescos or Rubens his canvases from anatomical conceptions of people. We have seen sketches that they presumably drew from life. But it seems as if the power of their vision always supersedes whatever they may have observed. I compose my studio paintings from anatomical conceptions of waves. They are based on particular kinds of waves that I have seen, but they never represent exactly any single moment in time.
Each painting instead represents an amalgam of many waves and days compressed into a single image. And each painting is part of a much longer dialog—an unending journey in the evolution of my understanding. Each painting is a record of a period in this journey.
It has been a transformative and defining endeavor. I find myself trekking out to the beach, usually just before the sun rises, and spending hours dissecting the motion and motifs of the sea. It has altered the course of my life, and meant that I must spend a part of every year planted on the beach continuing my study. And still I feel as if I am in the infancy of my understanding. I could fill several lifetimes continuing with this exhilarating challenge.
One of my earliest memories of the ocean is walking along the beach at night. I remember being so scared that a tidal wave would sweep me away, but I loved the mystery of the unseen. Listening to the waves and catching a glimpse here or there as the reflection of the moon glinted off of a wave peak was captivating. I have begun trying to capture something of that experience in a series of nocturnes. I began painting plein air studies of a bulkhead from under a dock light, and later did a number of studies of the moon, trying to catalog the colors of the night sky.
Over a period of years, these paintings have developed in tandem with my seascapes, marrying the wave forms that I have been studying with my color notes from night oil sketches. It feels as though I am treading on dangerous ground, painting such a saccharine scene. I think that most postcards would be embarrassed by it. But I hope to overcome whatever baggage the scene may come with and present my own serious take on it. I hope that any viewers will see past that sugary veneer and into the depths of the indelible experience of actually spending time on the beach at night.
Beyond the challenges presented by a genre that is too rarely explored in a thoughtful way, the ocean offers some tall compositional hurdles. Looking out at the ocean, waves are rolling toward shore, one after the next, roughly parallel to the horizon. The action of the waves is striking—racing toward the shore, collapsing and rushing forward as a torrent of foam. At times the action is meditative and at others terrifying. Compositionally, however, frozen in paint on a canvas, the scene can be lifeless. Nothing is more static and impenetrable than row after row of horizontals.
I have tried different ways of breaking up these horizontals, using perspective to skew closer waves and the shoreline off at an angle, creating diagonals, or getting a very low perspective allowing for some of the wave peaks to break the horizon. These organizational experiments have taught me a lot about the range of psychological impact that can be conveyed through abstract composition.
I have come to think about the ocean as I would a portrait. For example, I might consider a low angle versus a high angle. Psychologically either has its strength, while diagonals can convey a sense of movement. They impart a sense of activity to the picture. The alchemy of creating life and movement—in a way bestowing a sense of time and experience onto a flat, still image—is one of the miracles that I most enjoy about painting.
And yet I am after a sense of permanence in my seascapes—the idea that our lives are barely a blink of an eye to the waves that have persistently crashed against the shore over the course of countless generations. Those waves will endure when the last mark of our existence has been erased. Giants like Turner and Homer understood this and were able to express something of that power and permanence. I recognize this as an unreachable goal, but one in which I can envision infinite possibilities.
Through frequent trips to breathe the salty coastal air and watch the elements converge to imbue every second with something amazing, I continue asking questions. The answers will all be uncovered by the paint.
Connect with the artist at www.edwardminoff.com.
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