In this series, noted painter Joseph McGurl discusses plein air paintings by past masters that he finds instructive or inspiring. This week: “Beached Boat,” by Dennis Miller Bunker. 

This painting illustrates what plein air painting is all about—light. In “Beached Boat,” the midday sunlight and atmosphere create an overall unifying warm green tone contrasted with orange and tan accents. The objects depicted are either in light or shade, and within those parameters, there are further light distinctions such as cast shadow, reflected light, highlight, and the like. Notice how, rather than being just a shade of gray, the white cove stripe on the hull is seen as a green and tan color as it reflects the colors of the sunlit beach and grass. The same phenomenon can be seen on the underside of the boom, which now turns to light orange where it is influenced by the light reflecting off the tan deck. Reflected light can be found throughout the shady areas of this painting. The glints of highlight on the bowsprit and boom enliven the scene and create a value scale that ranges from black to white. This full range of values gives power to the composition and helps create a truthful impression of bright sunlight. Bunker also uses light and shade to define the composition. He keeps his composition strong by unifying the respective values within the shady and sunlit areas. If we squint at the painting, we see it divided into a few large masses. This creates a strong composition because large shapes are generally perceived as strong, and small shapes, weak.

“Salt Marsh Landscape With Two Children Near a Beached Sailboat and Dory,” by Dennis Miller Bunker, 1881, oil, 14 x 24 in.

It is interesting to compare this plein air sketch with the resulting studio painting, “Salt Marsh Landscape With Two Children Near a Beached Sailboat and Dory.” As well as expanding the title, Bunker adds several elements to give the scene more of a narrative content. He also softens the tone, which creates a more hazy atmosphere. However, he still maintains the key elements of the plein air sketch in terms of defining the composition and creating a sense of atmosphere through the use of light and shadow.  


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