Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ghost Ship v. Zorn Palette Redux

For the first time in 2-3 years (I can't remember exactly how long) I painted en plein air, and the first two didn't turn out too well. I'm blaming the small size of the panel surface instead of my technical inability to produce masterpieces(!) those two times.

The first painting was made in Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, which is a 40 minute drive north from New Orleans, facing Lake Pontchartrain. It was pure nature with water, sky, white sand, and some tall grass on a 12"x16" panel. It's not a bad painting, but it's too colorful for my 'gloom and doom' style.

The second was done in Madisonville, LA, about 20 more minutes' drive west from Mandeville. Google Maps told me that there was a lighthouse near where Tchefuncte River meets Lake Pontchartrain. So I was going to see how close the lighthouse was to the shore, and if I could paint it.

Upon arriving at the south end of Main Street, across a large gravel area with a simple empty boat raunch and two brand-new but empty picnic areas, all I saw was this abandoned boat around the bend.

my new BFF

I found out later that the locals call it 'the Ghost Ship' but it is actually a tow boat 'Freedom' that sank there in the '90s, raised, sank again, then raised again. Someone wanted to turn this into a floating bed and breakfast at some point. (check out the posts near the bottom of the thread on for more info)

The biggest mistake I made was not bringing a big enough canvas to paint this view. My 12"x12" panel didn't do justice (yes I'm blaming the panel, not my skills) and I promised the boat that I shall return.

"It's all about the stance." - photo by Aaron R.
Totally ignoring the lighthouse behind me

The return match a week later started out sketchy. The morning fog was so thick that I was afraid the boat won't be visible at all. As soon as we (me and my poor husband who had to drive me around hundreds of miles) came around the bend, it became clear that the stage had already been set. Perfectly. I couldn't have asked for a better painting subject.

Turn that smoke machine up to 11, Jimmy!
photo by Aaron R.

There was no clear division between the sky and the lake, and the fog enveloped the boat like a smoke machine in some David Lynch movie. But the real fog tends to lift pretty quickly.

Zorn Palette to the rescue! The modified version I used was made up of Winsor Red Deep, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Titanium White, Transparent White (Gamblin's 1980 series), and a tiny amount of Ultramarine Blue.

This 18"x36" painting of the Ghost Ship is the largest that I've done en plein air, and I actually find it easier to paint larger. I used to paint on small panels on location mainly because I can't transport wet paintings larger than 12"x16" with my current bike setup. Even when you hitch a ride with another painter, there is just no room for large canvases with two sets of painting gears taking up room.

I have to come up with a new bicycle setup that would allow me to carry large wet canvases, and wait for a bike lane to magically appear on the 23-mile long Causeway Bridge. How did van Gogh carry his wet canvas on his back?

Anyway, our return match was cut short because of an approaching ginormous rain storm (typical!). About an hour into painting the fog lifted completely, then my husband with a radar app stood next to me counting down how many minutes I had left before the storm came ("you have about 15 minutes... 10 minutes... pack up NOW!!"). There was less than 5 minutes to paint the reflection - maybe it ended up better that way.

Freedom (a.k.a. The Ghost Ship)
oil on canvas, 18"x36"
I always thought that limitations force you to be creative. Add some sense of urgency, and you do things you haven't done before.