The Titanic – a painting of a night scene

As some may have noticed, it’s 100 years ago since a certain ocean liner went down. Ships fascinate me. Disasters too. So – this is a subject I have wanted to make a painting of for quite a while. This spring seems to be as good an occasion as any.

I decided to go for a painting of the ship’s very last moments. All lights have gone out, the ship has broken in two, the bow section is gone and the stern section is taking the final plunge. One reason for choosing this very moment is that I don’t know any painting by Ken Marschall that shows it.

As for how the ship exactly behaved in these moments … well, this is a subject of intense debate among Titanic geeks, discussing conflicting accounts from eyewitnesses, possible angles and scenarios for the break-up and what have you. My picture will rely heavy on two survivors’ accounts in particular – those of Jack Thayer and Charles Joughin. They seem to describe how the ship during the very last moments was tipping forward as well as rolling over, going down with a pivoting motion. Joughin was actually on the ship when it happened; he describes how it would suddenly list, so most of the people still there was thrown off. He himself climbed the starboard railing and stood outside, on the side of the ship, as it went down. After that, he spent several hours in freezing water that would kill most people in minutes. He was, in short, a true badass, apart from having a ringside view to what happened. His account can be read here.

So, my first step has been to make an accurate line drawing of how the ship would appear to someone at sea level at just that moment. I put a plastic model of the Titanic in a bucket, adjusted the angle and photographed it. I used the photo mainly as a guide to working out the perspective. The details were put in with the help of various old photos and plans, made for modellers. Here it is in progress:

That’s the easy part. Now what is really tricky is to add colour. The actual event took place in a moonless night. It was dark. Really, really dark. It would have been hard to see much more than the silhouette of the ship against the starlit sky. In other words, there would be next to nothing to paint.

Now, try to remember some night scenes in movies (think maybe of a certain cheesy James Cameron movie, if you really have to). What do you see in those scenes? Usually an awful lot, actually. They tend to be far brighter than any real night scene would be. After all, the point of the movie is to see something happening, isn’t it?

And yet, you still know that it is night. How? Well, basically because of the colour blue. A scene where everything is bathed in a blue light tends to be perceived as a night scene. So, I made some colour studies where everything is far brighter than it would have been in reality, but with everything having a blueish tone, thus enabling me to go for an unrealistic contrast, where the viewer can actually see what’s happening, yet still (hopefully) giving the impression of looking at a night scene. After a couple of really crappy attempts I came up with this one. I think it has something of what I’m aiming for:

So far, so good. I’ll have to work a bit more on the drawing, before I can jump to the actual painting – so stay tuned.

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