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A Challenging Commission

I have just finished a commissioned painting which was challenging, and different from my usual subject matter. Essentially, it was a portrait of a ship which the client had a family connection with. I was provided with an image of a 19th Century painting and given a free hand to create my own interpretation of it -

I found the Victorian painting a bit uninteresting, and dull in colour because of the old brown varnish. I wanted to give the composition more energy and suggest the speed of a schooner, which was one of the fastest ships of its time. Looking through stock photographs of modern schooners to find something similar, I was surprised at the variety of size of vessel and type of rigging, but I managed to find a few that were similar topsail schooners; so-called because they have square-rigged sails at the top of the mast. With a few pencil sketches, I explored different ideas and made myself familiar with the way the ships were rigged. I also worked out a background representing the Caithness coastline, which had the outline of the mountain, Scaraben, and some characteristic cliffs. I finished with a full-sized drawing which I squared-up for transferring to the watercolour paper, and at the same time I reversed the image, because for some reason I felt happier with the ship sailing from left to right.

I had a bit of trouble with the flags: they had to be the same because one is the ensign of the Merchant Navy and the other is probably a company emblem, but when I painted them in a strong red colour they immediately drew the eye to the top left. My solution was to make them more faded, especially the top one, and I included some arbitrary red features on the deck to provide balance.

I hope my painting of the schooner has depicted the original vessel, but given it a greater sense of movement and a brighter, more modern appearance.

'Schooner "Snaefell" off Caithness', watercolour, 36 x 51 cm


  1. Hi Keith, I am interested to hear how your commission was received. The clients would know your style of painting so I would think they would have wanted a more contemporary look to the ship. I think you have made a fine job of this, what I notice on gazing at the painting is that I feel as if I am actually there in a boat along side this ship! I do like the original oil painting too but that is because I love these old Victorian paintings.

    1. Hi Caroline, yes the client was very happy with the painting. He already has a collection of my work, so he knew what to expect. I'm glad you get the feeling of movement, as that was what I wanted to convey.

  2. It is beautiful, Keith - it has such a wonderful feel of movement. Diane

  3. Keith, I had a look at the original oil painting and your rendition of it is spot on.
    It also proves you are not only a prolific landscape painter , but equally as good with other subjects. This ship a beauty.

  4. Good Afternoon Keith!... What a smashing good job you did in updating and translating the Snaefell into a more realistic painting style.

    The Victorian "Romanticism" style was very evident in the treatment of the light... vessel attitude and wave action in the original. I have always felt this genre of painting marine vessels to be very stilted and void of the actual sleek beauty... power and grandeur which schooners and clippers possessed.

    I have had the privilege of taking a small tour/voyage out of Halifax on the Canadian iconic schooner Bluenose. Your rendering recaptures my memory of that abbreviated moment... and the very feeling of power that made the age of sail so memorable.

    Again... Bravo Keith... for stepping up!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

    1. Good evening Bruce. That was my feeling about the original: it looked a bit 'wooden' (ha ha!). Having had that wonderful experience of a schooner under sail, you would be in a position to judge the success of the painting, so I'm glad that it recaptures that memory for you.

      All the best,

  5. I cant imagine your client being anything other than absolutely delighted with this Keith. It's a superb interpretation of the original painting and brings the schooner up to date perfectly. Stunning work!


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