On July 13 the U.S. Postal Service will issue a series of five postage stamps commemorating New England lighthouses, marking the fifth time since 1995 that the agency has produced a set of lighthouse-themed stamps.
One man has done the artwork for all of them: Howard Koslow. His paintings have been on lighthouses series stamps featuring the Great Lakes (1995), the Southeast (2003), the Pacific Coast (2007) and the Gulf Coast (2009). “These stamps have to be really, really accurate because there are a lot of people out there who know them well and are just looking for errors,” says Koslow, 88, a working artist since 1946 with no retirement plans in sight. “You don’t retire. There’s too many things I want to get done.”
During his long career, Koslow also has done paintings for the Coast Guard, the Air Force and the National Park Service. Other works of his have been used for travel posters, industrial art and advertising. When his latest series enters circulation, Koslow will have painted 60 stamps for the Postal Service, including depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge, classic wooden boats and jazz singers. “My first one was in 1971 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty,” he says. “Then [the Postal Service] came back to me 20 years later for the 30th anniversary — that one, I painted a Coast Guard cutter into it.”
Thirty of his stamp paintings have been of lighthouses. “Whenever possible we try to get a boat in to give it a feeling of life instead of a straight architectural structure,” he says. Though he’s not a boater — “I never had the time” — Koslow says he took full advantage of a cousin who cruised a 40-foot powerboat out of Queens, N.Y. Koslow lives in Toms River, N.J., with his wife of 64 years, Helen.
Koslow works with acrylic paint because he says it transfers to the stamp format better. Although the process for creating a stamp series lasts years — Koslow finished his work on the New England lighthouse series in 2009 — and involves a committee of decision-makers, his points of contact at the Postal Service are art directors Howard E. Paine and Greg Breeding. His lighthouse paintings come from carefully chosen photographs the Postal Service provides. Whenever possible, he wants water in the image.
For the Gulf Coast lighthouse series, developed after Hurricane Katrina, a photographer was hired to produce fresh images of each lighthouse to ensure that any landscape alterations the storm created were accounted for.
Once he has the photos, Koslow researches the lighthouses, learning their dimensions and characteristics. “I have to be very specific on where each window is, where the railings are,” he says. He then develops sketches, which after committee approval become the foundation for the finished work.
He does his postage stamp paintings on a 7-1/4-by-4-1/4-inch canvas instead of the much larger canvas upon which he creates his other work. He starts with the big picture first — the sky, landscape and beacon shape — then works his way down to the detail work. Each lighthouse painting takes a week to 10 days, he estimates.
The Postal Service sold 21.8 billion postage stamps in 2012 — 84 percent of them in the popular Forever format, which is immune to postage rate increases. The New England lighthouse series will be issued in that format. They will be available at www.usps.com and at local post offices.
On July 13, special dedication ceremonies are scheduled at or near all five locations in the series: Portland Head (Cape Elizabeth, Maine); Portsmouth Harbor (New Castle, N.H.); Point Judith, (Narragansett, R.I.); New London Harbor (New London, Conn.); and Boston Harbor. The five lighthouses are among the oldest in the country, and each is on the National Register of Historic Places. Boston Harbor Light — also known as Boston Light — is also a National Historic Landmark.
“A couple of times a year I paint what want,” Koslow says of his life as an artist for hire, “which usually comes from a reaction to a trip and the sights that inspired me.”
July 2013 issue