Is it possible to do a painting underwater?
In this photograph, noted fish painter Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006) appears to be “plein-water” painting on the sea floor. He is using an easel, a palette, a brush, and scuba gear.
But the artist explained that it was a hoax. “Having often been asked how I paint a fish underwater,” he said, “I decided to photograph the process for an exhibition catalogue, and I included the obvious impossibilities in the photo to make it unbelievable." (Below: a studio painting by Meltzoff)
“The figure standing before the easel has no mask and so is unable to see underwater, but people take it seriously and ask what sort of paints I use and how I get the fish to pose.” (quoted from Meltzoff & Rivkin, 2010)
Chris E. Olsen, left, (1880-1965) actually painted underwater, preparing for the ocean backdrops in American Museum of Natural History (Thanks, Adrien and AMNH).
Zarh Pritchard (1866-1956) was probably the first to paint underwater. In 1904, Pritchard went to Tahiti, where he swam underwater, holding his breath while making sketches first using using crayons on paper that had been taped to glass and then oiled. He then acquired the only diving suit in Tahiti and produced the first genuine undersea paintings. (Burgess, 1994, pp. 123-124)
“For his underwater work Pritchard used lambskin soaked with oil and brushes thoroughly soaked in oil. Wearing a diver's helmet, serviced by a tank from a boat on the surface, he sank to the seafloor with a coral or stone weight, selected the view that he wanted, had his canvas and materials lowered to him from the boat above, and painted for about half an hour....He preferred the depth of about 30 feet, where he found the light clear and at its best. In calm waters off Tahiti he could actually leave his easel on the seafloor and go back the next day to finish his picture. Most of his underwater work was used as sketches for later completed pictures.” (Shor, 2010)
Zahr wrote about the world where he most loved to paint: "It is a dream world in which everything is enveloped in soft sheen. On reaching bottom, it is as if one were temporarily resting on a dissolving fragment of some far planet. Nowhere does substance appear beyond the middle distance and material forms insensibly vanish into the veils of surrounding color" (Burgess, 1994, p. 158).
Many of his paintings were brought back to San Francisco where they were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
I would like to thank the following sources:
Rivkin, Mike, and Meltzoff, Stanley: “Stanley Meltzoff, Picture Maker, 2010”
Shor, Elizabeth. “Zahr H. Pritchard: A Biography" manuscript in the Scripps Institute
Burgess, Thomas. 1994. Take Me Under the Sea: "The Man Who Painted Under the Sea" (pages 93-160), The Ocean Archives, Salem, Oregon.
Meltzoff on Wikipedia
Meltzoff painting from Frazer Fine Art
Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History
Previously: Color Underwater