Great Northern’s Salmon Bay Bascule Bridge

Plein air painting at Seattle Locks

Ballard Rail Bridge (plein air). 12x9, oil on linen panel. 2016

Are there some things that you feel compelled to do, but every time you try they end up kicking your butt? I think everybody has at least one. For me it is painting engineering structures.

Having been educated as an engineer, I look at things like this bridge differently than an art major might do. To my eye this beautiful structure is a labyrinth of warren girders, rivets and beam deflection calculations. My mind goes through some mental gymnastics, and those things are suddenly translated into a lot of non-artistic context. All of which then puts me at risk of getting pulled into the unimportant details rather than things like shapes, values, and edges.

Today the sum of my painting moments nearly added to zero. The only difference between success and failure was that I kept at it and didn't give up. In fact, I've never worked so hard to save a plein air painting; almost everything I tried didn't work and had to be re-done. I kept scraping off sections and trying a new approach, over and over until I found a solution that I liked. 

Abstraction turned out to be my savior and the key to making this painting more effective. By deliberately destroying the bridge metalwork I was able to make the support seem more important. Runny paint applied randomly to the bottom of the panel removed loads of distracting detail and made the center of interest stand out. What I ended up with was the thing that initially drew me in: the splash of light on the bridge support.

Oh, and the reason there are no girders to the right? The bridge can be raised to let a boat pass underneath. This morning the drawbridge was up!

Read more about the bridge or  see it on Wikipedia.


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