This is the second part of the story of the making of the Cumberland painting.
With all this background information, I began visualizing the scene with some small color sketches in oil of various possible viewpoints and compositions.
The crucial moment, it seemed to me, was when both ships were firing on each other at close quarters, even as the Cumberland filled with water.
Some of the men were trapped below decks. One man was seen trying to escape from a gunport and was swept back inside by the power of the water. Others scrambled into the rigging. Many jumped overboard and either were drowned or were rescued by the lifeboats. Several accounts noted that the day was beautiful and clear, which presented a problem if I wanted to make the scene appear dramatic.
One of the four sketches is painted in a limited color range, resembling the sepia photos of the time. Historians and re-enactors told me that there would have been a tremendous amount of smoke and steam. I worked up a small comprehensive sketch in oil to plan the basic composition.
One detail that struck me was the account of a fat drummer boy who
jumped overboard and used his drum as a float. You can see him below in a detail of the finished painting.
All along, my instinct had been to view the scene from enough distance
to see the lifeboat and the waterline of the Cumberland. But before I went into full production on the painting, art director Christopher Klein suggested that I produce one more sketch showing a much closer view of the action.
In the oil sketch below, we see the pivot gun crew suffering great losses and yet bravely fighting on, with Morris calling out through his speaking trumpet.
Like all compositional decisions, this one would have been a tradeoff. Getting this close to the action brings the viewer closer to experiencing the psychology and the horror of battle. But if this scene was all that the viewer saw, it wouldn’t be clear what was going on at the water level. We agreed to pull back the viewpoint back just far enough to see the lifeboat action, but a little closer than we had shown in those first sketches.
Tomorrow, we'll get into the nitty gritty of research and acting out the poses.
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1A: The Backstory
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1B: The Research
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 2: Choosing the Scene
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 3: Acting it Out
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 4: Final Art