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Sunset on the banks

Oil painting by William R. Davis

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It’s sunset on the banks. The breeze is fading as twilight grows. Sails are slack on the schooner, and the fishermen are rowing their dories back with the last of the day’s catch, accompanied by a few lingering birds. It’s a scene that draws us into the past, and that’s the intent. William R. Davis has a passion for history that defines the way he paints — down to the colors he uses.

Born in 1950 in Somerville, Massachusetts, the self-taught artist drew ships and boats as a child. “I was doing pictures of old side-wheelers, which was pretty unusual for a kid,” Davis says. “Then an uncle told me about my great-great-grandfather, who was a steamer captain from Maine, so I guess that explains it.”

Davis drew inspiration from the great marine masters of the 19th century — Fitz Henry Lane, Antonio Jacobsen, James Bard and others. “It was trial and error,” he says. “Dealers would show me paintings to study. I went to exhibits, too.”

In addition to their subject matter, Davis studied the colors that the masters used. They worked with a palette of about 30 colors, and Davis collected exhibition catalogs, cut them up and practiced how to create these shades. He also learned the techniques the artists used, such as overlaying colors on a dark background. “They did the monochromatics first, all the dark colors. Then they would do the highlighting, adding the colors on top. That’s really an old technique, and I use it a lot,” Davis explains.

“You take a little from all the great artists along the way,” he says. “Eventually, you put it all together, and it becomes your own.”

To view this and other works by William R. Davis, visit the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery website at or visit the gallery at 1899 Bronson Road in Fairfield, Connecticut.

May 2015 issue