Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Painting Underwater

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)

Earlier artists such as 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


Anonymous said...

This totally made my day!

Unknown said...

I first saw a version of this Meltzoff portrait in "Wildlife Artists at Work", a Northlight edition by Patricia Van Gelder- 1982. Of course he didn't really paint underwater, but his convincing depictions of light and reflections both below and above the surface made it obvious he was a keen observer.

Jillian Lambert said...

Having just been certified as an open water diver, my very first thought regarding the photo was, He isn't wearing a mask; something's off.

Fascinating article! I'd love to be able to paint underwater life in that manner.

armandcabrera said...

I highly recommend the book published on Meltzoff called Stanley Meltzoff Picture Maker from Silver Fish press. It has some great images of his illustrations including National Geographic work.

My Pen Name said...

one point:
“The figure standing before the easel has no mask and so is unable to see underwater
not necessarily true. according to the book 'The brain that changes itself" (fascinating book!) pearl divers in the south pacific, if trained at a young age, actually develop the ability to see underwater quite clearly.

Unknown said...

Stephen Quinn’s book "Windows on nature" which is about the making of the dioramas of the american museum of natural history tels us about Chris E. Olsen who sketched the undersea world using oil paint (p.144)
You can see a picture of him sketching HERE

knoxblox said...

Too bad the Hydropolis underwater hotel in Dubai hasn't been completed. That would make things easier. Expensive, but easier.