Painting magnificent landscapes is no easy feat. They come with a complexity of elements and colours that must all be given attention while being blended into the greater image. They require a level of skill and precision that very few artists are capable of. And yet, seascapes are arguably a more difficult composition. This might seem counterintuitive. Afterall, there is only sky and water, sometimes with a scarce bit of land and a depiction of vessels. But it is exactly because there is primarily only sky and water that makes painting seascapes so challenging – it requires not only skill, but a unique imagination on the part of the artist to make a seascape unique; something that isn’t just sky and water.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Even if you know nothing about this painting, you’ve probably seen it, or at least a fragment of it. This painting seems to have seamlessly entered our culture, appearing on clothing, blankets, tote bags, shoes, phone cases and even alcohol. Painted by Katsushika Hokusai in 1830, The Great Wave has an inexplicable allure. It’s far removed from the painstaking realism of other seascape painting but has just as much life. The wave is both a natural phenomenon and a myth combined into a single entity, which is almost sentient, and purposeful in its rage. Its wave break almost seems to have claws, ready to shred the vessel beneath. Also, not all might notice, just right of centre is mount Fuji – a way for Hokusai to draw equivalence of scale between the two beasts.
The Ninth Wave
Another famous depiction of a raging seascape is Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave. In contrast to his Hokusai, the painting is magnificently realistic. A flawless composition where each element is in perfect concert with all others, making it feel like not merely a scene, but an event in and of itself. The whole story can be traced within it. The shipwreck survivors, clinging to the remains of the mast, are like soldiers taking grim account of a battle where they’ve suffered defeat. The interplay of light in the waves emphasizes the sheer volume of force with which their vessel had to contend. You can see the spray violently separating from the crests of waves – a stunning depiction of the wind that fuelled the storm, which seems to be subsiding. Tragedy is certainly a theme, but perhaps it isn’t as central as hope. The castaways can see the rising sun that marks the end of havoc and brings a warm sense that perhaps not all is lost.
Frederic Edwin Church created this masterpiece in 1861. It depicts an essentially similar situation to The Ninth Wave – a shipwreck, but this time no hope can be afforded to the survivors, as the icy waters will kill whoever is left. Calm, warning, inhospitable waters offer no sense of adventure or reason for courage, as if to attempt to conquer this deadly labyrinth of ice is a fool’s errand, even if any measure of success is ever gained. With blurred edges, Church depicts the icebergs as having malleable shapes. It also makes them seem less like objects and more like a force of nature. As if saying that there is no way to come prepared to this neck of the ocean. You’ll not that the three masterpieces are three very different stories, and yet, fundamentally, they are just sky and water.