Setting Sail with Edgar Payne

Edgar Payne (1882-1947)

Edgar Payne (1882-1947)

In honor of this summer month, I picked out a few sailboat paintings by a new artist! Well, new to me, anyway. He’s actually dead and gone, but I was delighted to find his work. Edgar A. Payne was a landscape artist, and he did some truly fantastic work of rocky mountains and canyons. However, I’m in mood for a theme, and so I chose this one.


To make water, you must act like water. It sounds cheesy, but that’s just how it is. Different artists accentuate different qualities of water, and they do it convincingly because their strokes take on those characteristics.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Payne’s water has duality. The surface in the sun is smooth and flat, sometimes almost 2D, and there is a regular stroke pattern (usually horizontal). Calm. Perhaps determinedly calm, with those large brushstrokes of thick paint acting like floorboards. But you can see past the top strokes and into the shadows where all is not calm. There lies the object reflections: shifting, dully colored, and peppered with the surface of an occasional wave. The hues of reflections are varied, and the strokes are often laid without pattern, unlike the methodical nature of the surface strokes (see Figure 1).

Figure 2

Figure 2

The sky, interestingly enough, is fashioned much like the water below (insert profound ponderings here). I must admit that the sky sometimes seems a bit…off. The surface of the water is painted without much variety of hues and in a regular pattern; this gives it a flattened quality which, of course, is present in a body of water. However, the sky (in real life) doesn’t quite have a “surface”; even clouds are not that flat. Payne’s skies tend to teeter on the edge of flatness (see Figure 2). A flattened sky scrunches the whole painting, bringing the background forward and eliminating the lightness and vastness of the seascape.

Figure 3

Figure 3

All of Payne’s brushstrokes tend to be big. Every surface is a mess of broad bands or dabs of color, like each stroke is a bandage holding things together (see Figure 3). These brushstrokes make even the sails feel…patched and clumsy and human. The boats are beautiful, but they lack a meticulous quality, the grandeur and awe-inspiring detail of large, impressive ships. There are, however, bright, lively stripes of color along the side of the boat (such details on seafaring objects must be maintained and re-painted, you know). I don’t know what these boats are for, but they seem to me like the carefully-cared-for, modest vehicles of everyday folk or small businessmen.


Horizon lines offer a subtle, strong horizontal, but Payne’s paintings do not dwell of the sea horizon. Indeed, Payne’s point of view is angled so that most (if not all) of the water horizons are hidden from view, but the bit that is in view can hold its own. The stripes of the boats: here is another place where Payne emphasizes the horizontal.

The strong verticals are usually in the form of masts. Do I find it interesting that the horizontal/vertical lines in these images are distinctive and balanced between horizon and mast, nature and man-made? HELL YES.


Sometimes it’s bright and sometimes it’s pale. He likes to juxtapose orange sails and blue-toned water (note: COMPLIMENTARY colors!). I cannot think and much more to say on the subject.


Figure 4

Figure 4

Payne is not far away from the sailboats; he is not up above somewhere looking down, which inevitably makes a boat seem like a tiny toy in vast waters. For that matter, he is not obviously on land. The artist is among the boats, in the thick of it all. But where, exactly? Perhaps on the edge of the water (you can’t oil paint in the water, silly!). The view is focused on the boats, not their context. People are present in some painting, but they are small, barely more than a concentration of blots; you cannot glean information about place and time from these figures. Such a viewpoint has a disembodying effect on the audience: no sense of place and no place to put your feet.

These are not abandoned boats, however; there is something exciting here, a feeling of movement. Perhaps sometimes it is because the boats are engaging the frame, masts extending up and out of the painting’s edge. These boats don’t fit into the frame, which heightens their size metaphorically: they cannot be contained. They are free to roam.

Look how Payne structures the boats on the canvas: they are often clumped together on one side, and the main sail slopes (in a strong diagonal) towards the open water (see Figure 3). The boat is on a determined path away, out to fulfill its raison d’etre. Payne rarely surrounds a single boat with water without the presence of another seacraft, nor does he paint a solitary boat pointing determinedly out into a turbulent sea. The boats are either parked in a port or clumped together in open water. I do not get the feeling of insignificance or loneliness from the painting, nor that the boats are doomed, subject to the whims of Mother Nature. The compositions are balanced between the boats and the sea and the sky, none of which seem ominous.

I do not know much about Edgar Payne, I do not know if he was an avid seaman, but I do know how he feels about sailboats. These scenes compliment each other. He celebrates man’s attempts to greet the sea and sky, to be with Nature. He finds stability and goodness there.


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