Through my little porthole I could see that the day was dawning clear. The lupines I’d sketched out the prior night would be lit up by the dawn light. I scrambled up to the deck in a considerable fizz.
And there, swinging gently on its anchor, was the Lewis R. French. She had come in during the late evening, when I was already snoring in my berth.
Built in 1871, she is the oldest known two-masted schooner in the United States, and the only known surviving Maine-built schooner. She has a relationship with the American Eagle, having been restored by Captain John Foss in the early 1970s.
It is ironic that so many of the contemporary Maine windjammers are from ‘away.’ In the 19th century Maine led the nation in the number of schooners and sloops engaged in the coasting trade. In 1876, the Owl’s Head Light keeper reported that 16,000 schooners passed the westerly approach to Penobscot Bay. Many boats used elsewhere were built here.
The lupines, lit by the early morning sunlight, were already drafted on my canvas. I knew I could finish this painting comfortably before we left. However, the Lewis R. French shimmered in the early morning light, reflected on the absolutely smooth water. I could paint her in my studio, but it would never be fully adequate. Photographs lie about color and presence. Still, the best I could do with her in the time I had was to make color notes to use later.
No contest: the boat always wins. I was still laying down paint as we left Pulpit Harbor.
From Pulpit Harbor, we ran along a ledge. There I put into play my earlier idea that I could draw in the shapes of an island fast and then fill in the details from another island. There, too, I noticed that the sun was making color vectors on the waves. These lines of intense blues and teals danced amid the more-ubiquitous silvery tones. I started my painting by overstating these. I’m glad I did, for they shifted constantly as our angle to the light changed.
We were home far too soon. It’s a pity that I wasn’t born in the early 19th century, when I could have joined a South American expedition as their illustrator/cartographer and painted and drawn forever from the deck of a boat.
The four days I spent painting from the deck of the American Eagle presented far different challenges from even the most rigorous backwoods plein air painting I’ve done. Would I do it again? In a nanosecond. There’s a discipline there, waiting to be developed. I’ve barely scratched the surface.
(The American Eagle, the Isaac H. Evans, the Heritage and other Rockland and Camden schooners are featured in Below the Waterline: Seven Weeks in the Shipyard, at Camden Falls Gallery this month.)