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.
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 (archaeology.org) in the form of Buddhist cave paintings–date back circa 650 AD (sciencedaily.com), 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.
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.