Growing a Coral Reef (in the garage?!)

ON 11-28-2018 I WAS SWIMMING in the tropical Caribbean waters off St. Croix in the Virgin Islands when I caught some underwater images in digital form of a very vividly alive coral reef ecosystem. Since I couldn’t at that time take up permanent residence on the reef (I very much wanted to), and since I don’t have the means or expertise to have corals as pets (some lucky people do!), I settled for growing a reef by hand on canvas with paint. Since (very reluctantly) coming ashore and returning to my garage-turned-studio in the drought-stricken landscape of Southern California, I have begun painting those corals and that reef, with the visual aid of the watery digital photographs I brought back with me on a nifty memory stick and my own memory to (re)boot.

Just a few beginning colors on 12-25-2018

I started the 40″x40″ painting on Christmas day 2018. Although I have experimented with several brands of oil paints of higher and lower qualities, I always revert back to Blockx oil paints, of which I now use exclusively. I have also used oil mediums such as linseed, safflower, and walnut oils, and more modern inventions such as Liquin, Gamsol, Gamblin Solvent Free Medium, and traditional turpentine and mineral spirits, but again have reverted back to solely using pure poppyseed oil (sans turpentine) to dilute the paint (remember fat over lean!). Blockx’s pure pigment, stone-mill ground, poppyseed oil paints hail from Belgium (officially as Blockx since 1865), whose lineage would trace back to Northern Renaissance Flemish painting and later the Dutch Golden Era. Although the oldest known oil paintings–discovered in 2008 in Bamyan, Afghanistan ( in the form of Buddhist cave paintings–date back circa 650 AD (, oil painting as we think of it today did not begin to evolve until the 15th century. This was through the eyes and hands of Northern Renaissance masters such as Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, and Hieronymus Bosch. Although elements of Bosch may fantastically approach peculiar forms of the natural world, none of these painters ever painted pictures of coral reefs.

Detail of The Way to Paradise by Norther Renaissance Netherlandish painter Dieric Botus, from 1468-9 AD. Notice the gems amidst the rocks on the shore of the stream
Left to right, starting at the top: ivory black, vine black, cassel earth, mars brown, light red, mars violet, rose madder, pyrrolo red, pyrrolo orange, mars yellow orange, yellow ochre, naples yellow reddish, naples yellow, cadmium yellow light, aureolin, golden green, cinnabar green, cadmium green deep, cobalt green, veronese green, turquoise green, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, blockx blue, indanthrene blue, French ultramarine light, dioxazine mauve, manganese violet, cobalt violet deep, cobalt violet, zinc white, titanium white, and (not shown) flake white
Palette as it was on 1-4-2019

Even though I use Blockx paints, this specific coral reef painting ended up looking more like a work from the lineage of Impressionism (those French artists using Sennelier oil paints, which are equally good but qualitatively different) rather than the Renaissance. However, since I am doing a painting of something underwater, I could not–unlike the most well-known Impressionist painter Claude Monet–do the paintings en plein air. It would be impossible, sans a see-through submersible, to do oil paintings in plein water. Instead, I looked to photos and, more significantly, to my full-body memory of the physical, sensory experience of being in the water with the coral reef and its inhabitants. A photograph may be scientifically or technologically acute and accurate, but it is not processed or created through the human nervous system the way a painting is.

Above is a digital photograph of a section of a Caribbean coral reef as seen on 11-28-2018
One of Monet’s curved paintings at the Orangerie, Paris, as photographed on 5-18-2018. I wonder how Monet would have felt about coral reefs if he saw them?
As seen on 1-1-2019
…and more it grows…
Detail in progress
Detail photograph of coral and other life forms growing (i.e. in progress…)
Finished detail of that section of painted reef
Close-up photo of coral
Detail of painting, and more below:

Painting as seen on 12-31-2018
Painting as seen on 2-5-2019, after a wash of Aureolin color. This rendered the painting golden all over
After not working on this particular painting for over a month, I went to work on it on 3-30-2019 and took the photo above
The finished painting photographed on 4-21-2019

More photographs of the coral reef can be seen here and paintings here