A young artist takes on a venerable genre
Few aesthetic disciplines are as exacting as marine art. Consider the problems. The painter of portraits or landscapes can return to the subject again and again to verify shape, color, tone. But water is a moving, constantly changing element. The artist is dependent on sketches and memory to reproduce the play of reflections on the water’s surface or the spume and the spindrift of a stormy sea. Sky usually occupies more of the canvas than does either ship or sea. How marry these dissimilar elements so that they fuse rather than conflict? Then there is the ship. Besides a professional knowledge of art materials and techniques, the practitioner must know something of hull construction and everything about rigging. John Masefield, the English poet laureate, wrote, “In nearly all sailing ships of [my] time, the lines forward were of an exciting grace. Often, the curve of the hull, the sweep of the sheer, from forward aft, was of an agreeable bird-like balance. … Above this horizontal fabric of such varying charm rose the raking, tapering pinnacles of three or four masts, each subtly diminishing in size and raiment, each proud, efficient, and a beauty adding to beauty. All sailing ships had some measure of these graces: some had them surpassingly.”
The marine artist must tie all these elements together. Opportunities for error are endless, and intolerance of mistakes is even greater today than in the nineteenth century. How often we see pictured a ship with every sail set, under wind and sea conditions that promise to blow out half her canvas at any moment. The writer and marine engineer William McFee deplored “oil paintings of ships in full sail, in perilous proximity to ugly headlands or in the act of running down innocent oriental craft.” We see steamers bowling along with a following wind, the smoke from the funnel blowing aft; ships docking and undocking with almost all their sails full and drawing. Even the van de Veldes, true parents of marine art, would show half a dozen large vessels, all close aboard, sailing in directions that guarantee mass collisions within a few moments, because the painters wanted to show detail on every vessel. One of J. M. W. Turner’s most famous marine paintings portrays a cutter and a ship, both running before the wind, moving in opposite directions. It does, of course, improve the composition—which suggests the greatest problem of today’s marine artist: how to bring originality to the concept and design when all the simple, logical positions of a ship seem to have become clichés.
Christopher Blossom is proof that the genre still attracts new talent despite its difficulties. Born in 1956, Blossom is the son and grandson of the artist-illustrators David and Earl Blossom. He began painting while still in high school, studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, and worked in the industrial-design studio of Robert Bourke. In 1977 he won the Scholarship Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. He believes he learned as much from his father’s critiques of his paintings as from school, and his predilection for marine art was certainly not discouraged by the family’s friendship with John Stobart, today probably the best known and most successful practicing marine artist in America.
Blossom is a personable, unpretentious young man, serious and articulate about his work, a conscientious researcher. Most often he gets an idea for a painting and then goes about finding and researching a ship and situation to fit the idea. An interesting lighting effect could provide the impetus to begin a new project. He seldom works on assignment, because he does not like to compromise his artistic freedom: if asked to do a particular ship, Blossom might agree, but he would paint it in his own way. Whoever made the proposal would then be free to buy or not buy.
A careful worker, Blossom finishes ten to twelve paintings a year, most of them oils. He feels that acrylics dry too fast, and that the colors lack the vibrancy of oils. Although he may refer to old paintings and photographs of long-gone vessels, he prefers to work from plans, which, thanks to his experience with Bourke, he has no difficulty reading. His home in Stratford, Connecticut, is close to Mystic Seaport, where hundreds of fine ship models are available for study. Many marine artists have gone in heavily for lithograph prints, which are important for income and exposure. Blossom has done four so far.
Among other artists, Blossom particularly likes the work of American impressionists like James McNeill Whistler and Childe Hassam. He is not strongly influenced by any single contemporary marine painter.
Asked why he has chosen marine art, Blossom said: “I never really tried to think why. We always lived near the water. My father owned a boat, and I loved sailing. At first it probably was not an intellectual idea that influenced me—the immensity of the sea with its beauties and menace—not consciously anyway. I read and reread sea stories, especially C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series. I visited John Stobart’s studio, and his work had an atmosphere that stuck with me. Sails, rigging, the look of harbors a hundred years ago—you get so caught up in the subject you concentrate on it almost without realizing it. But I try not to paint just a technically correct ship or harbor. I try to use color, light, composition, anything I can, to create a mood. Sometimes it works.”