Over the years, a marine artist can form a strong feeling for the region in which he or she works, be it Chesapeake Bay, the Maine coast or the Caribbean. For Rick Brawner, there’s no better place to paint than Door County in Wisconsin. “What could match spending an early morning in a cozy harbor like Sturgeon Bay, surrounded by tugboats just waiting to be painted on canvas, while listening to the gulls call and smelling the fresh breeze off Lake Michigan?” the Green Bay native asks.
That’s how the 30-by-40-inch Sturgeon Bay Tugs took shape. “I started with a plein air [study],” he says. “The tugs are docked in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The buildings behind are what is left of the old Midwest co-op grain elevator.”
Returning to his Fish Creek, Wisconsin, studio, he used the smaller plein air painting to create the larger canvas. “My attraction to this scene is a love for the power, seaworthiness and stately, subdued grace and elegance of these fine old tugs,” Brawner says.
Sturgeon Bay’s rich history of shipping, dating to the early 1900s, continues today. “Besides towing barges and general tug work, one of the tugboats’ missions is moving ships — often in deep winter harbor ice — to and from dry docks along the channel that runs through the city,” Brawner says. “During our long winters, as many as 20 big lake boats will winter in Sturgeon Bay for layup, maintenance and overhaul.”
It’s these visual, physical and historical elements that inspire the artist. “I feel the Great Lakes, and … our scenic peninsula [of] Door County is the perfect place for a seascape painter to live and paint,” Brawner says. “My other feeling is regret that these iconic places with historic and artistic value are being threatened by coastal development. What a shame it would be to see these tugs gone and in their place another cookie-cutter resort hotel.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.