Marine Art - A Dutch Tradition
Updated: Oct 5
What is it about the sea? It is beautiful and ugly, peaceful and terrifying.
Most of us will recognise a compulsion to return to the coast if we've been absent from it for a while - attached as it were to a strong tether that always draws us back. We do so for different reasons; the constant, hypnotic motion perhaps, the eternal emptiness, the silvery surface, or simply it's the best place to eat fish 'n' chips! My own reasons are not the subject of this post - I'll return to them in due course - suffice to say that it inspires me. I am certainly not the first artist to have been attracted to sea and coast; for as long as artistic records have endured marine art has enjoyed a prominent place in a vast ocean of different subjects and genres.
Landscape painting started to establish itself as a recognised discipline during the Renaissance era, but marine art as a subject of its own, distinct from the broader landscape genre, only started to gather momentum in the 17th Century, becoming particularly evident during the Dutch Golden Age, a period toward the end of, and after, the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence. A shift away from the established religion of the Roman Catholic church towards a Calvinist expression of Protestantism saw a change in subject matter for artists: the painting of religious subjects was frowned upon, if not forbidden, and landscapes and seascapes became increasingly popular in their place. Inspiration was easy to find; colonial success, development in overseas trade and a powerful navy all helped to keep the sea at the forefront of public consciousness, not only as a beautiful vista but an arena for adventure where human endeavour would either sink or swim. The flat, featureless landscapes, low horizons and large skies promoted lighting and compositions that came to define the genre, and continue to be an important aspect of its rich tradition today.
It is incontrovertible that the sea is one of nature's strongest sculptors of our landscape, and exploring how it has shaped and defined our coastlines is a constant source of inspiration in my work. Inevitably I find myself drawn to the work of other artists too who share a similar inspiration and vision and, as I have done previously on the blog, it is nice to share their work with you. Without any further ado, may I introduce you to the work of Dutch watercolour painter Edo Hannema (although I guess for many of you, he needs no introduction)?
Edo and I both share an unwavering commitment to the watercolour medium, and an obsessive fascination with paper, paints and palettes, spending far too much time discussing their merits. Those that follow his blog and excellent online tutorials will be well aware of his experience with, and knowledge of the medium. Edo is a good friend - interesting, funny, extremely generous - and a talented painter. Living in the port of IJmuiden, it is inevitable that much of his work features the sea, as it did for the Old Dutch Masters of yesteryear.
Many of the traditional elements of marine art are evident in Edo's work. Consider the low horizon in the painting above and how this gives the sky an expansive presence. It may seem counter-intuitive that many marine paintings have so little water and so much sky, however the relationship between these two elements is an essential feature of the genre; it doesn't need my explanation or a painting to tell you that the colour and surface behaviour of water is a direct function of overhead conditions. It is this relationship that Edo explores and captures so successfully in his paintings, and the sense of unity he achieves is a testament to his skilful mastery of the watercolour medium, and a thorough understanding of coastal light.
Always working with a limited palette - more often than not Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna - Edo approaches his subjects with a loose technique, rendering sea, sky and the landscape in a combination of simple shapes. The combination of soft blues, browns and greys promotes a sense of continuity across the areas of sea and sky, lending a soft, calming atmosphere to his work.
Despite our mutual appreciation of watercolour and shared inspiration from coastal scenery, Edo's style avoids the detail that I enjoy capturing in my work, preferring to explore larger shapes and allowing the viewer's mind to fill in the details. It is a beautiful style to paint in, but a difficult one to achieve. Being able to suggest a distant windmill and its reflection with so few brushstrokes requires a high degree of confidence and technical skill that only comes with years of experience.
A challenge that often presents itself for the marine artist relates to the the horizon. It is almost inescapable in a coastal scene and the nature of the surrounding land - beaches, mud flats, promontories, dykes - is often flat and horizontal too, nowhere more so than The Netherlands. You will notice in Edo's work that this proclivity to the horizontal is expertly counter-balanced with well-placed verticals: ships' masts, posts, windmills, and lighthouses. It is in this exercise of finding contrast and balance that I experience the greatest satisfaction in Edo's work; his paintings aren't simply a record of the physical elements of the coast (beautiful as they may be) but are far more than that. The use of man-made structures paints a bigger picture and tells us a story of our relationship with the sea - how we live on it and how we live with it. These are the very same considerations that inspired the Dutch Masters from the Golden Age, and as a contemporary custodian and practitioner of their values, Edo Hannema sits very comfortably in their company.
Please take some time out to visit Edo's various platforms - all related to watercolour painting. From his excellent work on promoting the work of old watercolour masters to teaching the subject to students, you will find them to be helpful and interesting resources. And you get to see his wonderful paintings too!
www.facebook.com/edohannemawatercolourart/ - a celebration of Old Masters' work