Whaling Ships at Delano Bay, Baffin Island

Watercolor by  Cooper Hart
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“In my dreams, I am standing a 2 a.m. wheel watch, running down some long, lonely reach of flat water, snow-capped mountains glistening in the moonlight on either side … [cruising] endlessly through the black Alaskan night,” says watercolorist Cooper Hart. “The skipper sleeps in his cabin. An old friend is checking the charts. It is the ancient sailor’s blessing of a good ship and a good crew in a great land.”

For Hart, that great land is the Pacific Northwest, from his home port near Seattle up the coast to Canada, Alaska and beyond. It’s a stretch of water that’s bred rugged boats and hard lives, as he learned firsthand on an 800-mile voyage aboard an Alaska salmon gillnetter.

Hart also worked as a sign painter in Seattle shipyards while he taught himself the intricacies of marine art. Surrounded by Bering Sea crabbers, salmon purse seine boats, tenders, packers, halibut schooners and tugboats, Hart watched the fitters, painters, caulkers, riggers and carpenters as they readied the fleet for the waters of Alaska. Soon he was making the run to Alaska himself — at the same time he began exhibiting his watercolors to an appreciative audience. “I felt these experiences gave me a lot of creative inspiration,” he says, “a level of realism.”

Whaling Ships at Delano Bay, Baffin Island records a historical scene from the early 1800s, when hardy sailing vessels followed the retreating sea ice in Davis Strait. But the cold-sea atmosphere is timeless — and a challenge to capture. “I’ve always been interested in the visual contrast of ships among the Arctic ice fields,” the 65-year-old artist says. “The colors that create the atmosphere in my pictures are the result of careful underpainting … seven or eight washes or more of color to obtain an effect. Sometimes it turns out nothing like you had in mind, but you must be open to what happens and not just what you wanted to happen.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.