When I think of seascape painters, Ivan Aivazovsky is one of the first to come to mind. He was a prolific Russian artist who created thousands of paintings depicting the sea in various forms. Let’s take a closer look at his life and work. I’ll cover:
- Key Facts and Ideas
- The Power of Going Deep
- Color Themes
- Key Takeaways
- Additional Resources
“Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and a bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He’s not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” Anton Chekhov
Key Facts and Ideas
- He was born in 1817 in the coastal city of Feodosia, where he spent much of his life painting.
- In his teens, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts under Maxim Vorobiev for landscape painting and Alexander Sauerweid for battle painting. You can see the influence these two had on Aivazovsky’s work, Vorobiev for his use of atmosphere and contrast and Sauerweid for his complex battle scenes.
Tip: Who you learn from will influence how you paint. Learn from many, but choose wisely.
- As part of his battle painting studies, he took part in military exercises in the Baltic Sea to gain first-hand experience of the subject.
- He graduated two years early from the Academy in 1837 and was awarded a gold medal “for excellent achievements in the painting of marine views” (source). This put him in a prestigious group with the likes of Ivan Shishkin and Ilya Repin. Here’s a list of all other awardees.
- In 1850, the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, acquired Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave. On a boat trip together, Nicholas I said:
“Aivazovsky! I’m the king of the earth, and you are the king of the sea!” (Source)
- He painted almost entirely from memory and imagination, without sketches or studies. He must have had a remarkable memory! I don’t know of many other artists who paint from memory like this.
- Most of the 6000 or so paintings he created are seascapes, but he did paint a few landscapes and portraits. See below.
- His art brought him notoriety and fortune, and he became a significant land and property owner in Crimea. His home in Feodosia on the shores of the Black Sea is now an art gallery.
- Anton Chekhov coined the phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” in his 1897 play Uncle Vanya. Below is an extract.
MARINA. And quite rightly. What a storm they have just raised! It was shameful!
TELEGIN. It was indeed. The scene was worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush.
- He met and inspired English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner even dedicated a poem to Aivazovsky. See below.
Like a curtain slowly drawn
It stops suddenly half open,
Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope,
It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark,
Thus the moon barely wanes
Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea.
Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly
This scene of a formidable sea,
And it will seem to thee a waking dream.
That secret mind flowing in thee
Which even the day cannot scatter,
The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart
Will enchain thee in this vision;
This golden-silver moon
Standing lonely over the sea,
All curtain the grief of even the hopeless.
And it appears that through the tempest
Moves a light caressing wind,
While the sea swells up with a roar,
Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me
The tempestuous sea,
Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown
Of a great king.
But even that moon is always beneath thee
Oh Master most high,
Oh forgive thou me
If even this master was frightened for a moment
Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed…
And how may one not delight in thee,
Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me,
If I shall bend my white head
Before thy art divine
Thy bliss-wrought genius.
Dedicated to Ivan Aivazovsky, 1842 (Source)
The Power of Going Deep
Aivazovsky spent a lifetime painting seascapes. With that comes a deep understanding of the subject that cannot be otherwise attained. It shows throw his work. You can feel the sea’s mood, whether that be tranquil and serene or turbulent and almighty. Going deep allowed Aivazovsky to cement himself as the seascape painter in the minds of many. If he had broadened his interests outside of seascape painting, he might not have achieved such success.
But going deep comes at a cost. You don’t get to experience all the other wonders out there. Aivazovsky was the master of the sea, but perhaps he would have been an even more skilled portrait painter. Who knows?
This raises an interesting point on whether you, as an aspiring artist, should focus on breadth or depth with your work. Should you paint landscapes and only landscapes, or should you try your hand at portraits and still lifes as well? Should you paint in oils and only oils, or should you also try acrylics and watercolors?
My take is that you should lean towards breadth in your early years. Then, as you gain experience, pick areas to really go deep on. Most of the joy of painting is below the surface, so it pays to go deep. But, you need to first work out what areas to go deep on. That’s what your early years are for-experimentation and finding out what works for you, whether that be landscapes and oils, or portraits and watercolors.
Aivazovsky pushed the drama in many of his works. He reminds me of Albert Bierstadt in this sense, who did a similar thing with landscapes.
In The Wrath of the Seas, Aivazovsky contrasted dark and imposing shadows against brilliant highlights. This works both ways: the darks appear darker and the lights appear lighter. He took advantage of scale to make the boat appear tiny and futile compared to the vicious sea. And the cool colors play into the idea of icy water and winds. (I analyze this painting in greater detail in my Composition Breakdown course.)
He made similar use of contrast in Peter the Great in Red Hill, Lit a Bonfire on the Beach. But instead of pale blues, he pushed the warm colors. These colors play into the idea of light and fire rather than the icy sea.
Tip: You can use color to place emphasis on particular areas in your painting. For example, if you want to draw attention to the lush leaves and plants in a landscape, you could push the greens.
Rainbow is a lighter example of drama. The pale background focuses attention on boat battling the seas. The ship behind melts into the atmosphere and looks ethereal and ghostly.
Aivazovsky also pushed the drama in terms of the canvas size he painted on. The Ninth Wave is a staggering 11 by 7 feet (3.3 by 2.2 meters). It must be quite a sight in person. If you ever want to make a statement with a painting, go large.
Aivazovsky used strong and concise color themes that reiterate the subject. For warm sunsets, he pushed the yellows, oranges, and reds. For still mornings, he used soft pastels. For storms, he pushed the value contrast and muted the colors.
Below is one of Aivazovsky’s more vibrant works. It’s a battle between the sky’s yellows and oranges and the sea’s greens and blues. The reflections on the water help weave the two areas together. I particularly like how Aivazovsky used rich blues for accents in the water. It gives the painting a strange glow. It’s not easy to use so much color and get away with it!
Petersburg Stock Exchange captures the sun just as it falls below (or rises above) the horizon line. Aivazovsky pushes the reds, oranges, and yellows and restrains the blues.
Aivazovsky does a great job of conveying the night sky in The View of Vesuvius on a Moonlit Night. The rough color transitions in the sky convey a moody and dark atmosphere. This is contrasted by the crisp reflections on the water. Also, notice how the colors taper off into darkness around the edges. This is known as vignette and it’s an effective way to create drama, focus attention, and convey the night’s darkness.
Aivazovsky took a more somber approach in Lunar Night on the Black Sea. The color palette is muted, almost monochrome. This helps reiterate the brilliant white moonlight. We cannot paint with light itself, but Aivazovsky comes close!
The painting below conveys those brief moments around sunset when all the pastel colors come out to play. Look at those wonderful greens in the sky and blues around the water, and how they melt into each other. Soft color transitions=calm appearance. The shore, people, and ship act as dark accents. They command attention and make the pastel colors appear light and glowing by comparison.
Aivazovsky had a masterful understanding of water and how it moves and interacts in the world. You can feel the ebbs and flows, swirls, waves, and ripples through his work.
In Storm, notice how the snaking whitewash follows the contours of the water and how it concentrates in the troughs and where the water is breaking at the crests. These are the strongest signals as to how the water is moving.
The painting is built around a dominant wave at the back. See how water breaks unevenly. This looks natural and fluid.
Tip: Avoid painting waves that break and fold over in perfect unison. This is a common issue I see in beginner paintings. Typically, a wave will break in one area and pull the surrounding water with it.
Surf is a great example of using different techniques to achieve different goals. In areas of activity and movement, Aivazovsky used harder edges, thicker texture, and stronger contrast. The other areas, like where the water is lapping against the shore, are quieter and conveyed with soft edges and flat color shapes.
The point here is that water does not move in a uniform fashion. Some areas are fast and turbulent; some areas are calm and glassy; some areas choppy. Use different techniques to convey these different natures.
Also, look at all the curves in this painting. I can see very few straight lines, other than the weak horizon line. Curves=life as I believe Steve Huston put it in his Figure Drawing for Artists book.
- Most of the joy in painting is below the surface. It pays to go deep, as Aivazovsky did with seascapes.
- Aivazovsky painted almost entirely from memory. But he seems to be an unusual case. Apart from concept artists, I don’t know many people who can paint from memory like this.
- He pushed the drama, often contrasting imposing shadows against brilliant highlights. He also made great use of scale to demonstrate nature’s almighty power and our relative futility against it.
- His color themes are strong and concise. He used color to reiterate the idea and nature of the painting.
- Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to gain a deep understanding of its nature. Over time, painting it will become more instinctive and natural, like painting the sea would have felt for Aivazovsky.
Thanks for Reading!
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