It’s cold. Really cold. Alaska cold. There’s a hint of sheet ice on the frigid waters of Coal Harbor on Unga Island, located in an arm of Zachary Bay at 55 degrees north, 160 degrees west. The sky over the eastern Aleutian Islands shows a thin, chill sunrise; the ship’s mainsail picks up the pale colors, reflecting in her wake. Snow-covered rocks form a winding channel that the broad-beamed, two-masted coastal schooner will travel with a light, following wind. Men are huddled aft, and another sailor trails in the launch, perhaps clearing ice from the bilge. The only sign of warmth comes from a yellow light shining through a window onshore.
“This is a gouache study for a larger oil painting,” the artist, Don Demers, says from his Maine studio, describing an opaque water-based medium. “It’s a narrative scene of Coal Harbor, showing a cod-fishing schooner leaving the outpost on Coal Island.”
Creating a sense of cold, an actual feeling of having a chill, is no small feat on a painted canvas. “I attempt to capture that sense by using color tones that convey a lot of moisture in the air,” Demers says. “The coloration I employed was pale greens and pinks complementary colors—to create a subtle atmospheric vibration.”
Scenes and colors such as these are nothing new to 63-year-old Demers, who is a fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists. Largely self-taught, he spent his early summers in Boothbay, Maine. He went on to hone his skills while serving as a crewmember on a host of sailing ships and boats, including the square-rigger Unicorn, the brigantine Black Pearl and the schooner Fair Sarae.
“I did a lot of sketching and studies while I sailed on traditional boats and ships,” Demers says, adding that it’s a habit he retains today. “I always have my sketching materials with me when I sail and cruise.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.