A dark sky rolls in over light green water as a waterman returns from a morning working the sea. It was this contrast between the dark horizon and tropical water that Joseph McGurl wanted to capture when he created this oil-on-panel piece “Tropical Waters” from his imagination.
“I made it up, so it’s not any place in particular,” McGurl explains, “but I’ve spent a lot of time in Florida and the Keys and the Bahamas, so it’s based on things I’ve seen there.” McGurl often paints from his imagination, and his main motive when creating a scene in his head is to capture a particular feeling.
“In this painting, I was trying to recreate an experience that I did not actually have, but that I had experiences similar to,” he says. “Sometimes I will paint something I’ve sketched on location; other times, like in this painting, it’s completely imaginary, but I’m trying to put the viewer in that spot.”
McGurl, who lives on Cape Cod, grew up boating on Quincy Bay and Boston Harbor. He was drawn to art from early childhood and went on to attend the Massachusetts College of Art, inspired in part by his father, who was a muralist. After graduating, he spent a few years working as a yacht captain before deciding to pursue painting full-time. He never stopped boating, however, and has since owned a succession of sail and power boats, including his current 44-foot, Alden-designed ketch built in 1965, from which he often paints on location in plein air.
The time McGurl has spent on the water informs his paintings, allowing him to create highly accurate scenes without the use of photographs, working solely from memory, observation and imagination. “With marine art, having direct first-hand experience with the subject gives it authenticity,” he says. “It’s not just having the rigging correct, but the atmosphere, the state of the sea, getting that emotional sense of movement in the water.”
This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.