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Meet Vintage Artist Cooper Hart: Marine Watercolorist

Cooper Hart was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1952.  The son of a career Air Force officer, an aircraft navigator and crewman, he grew up around military bases scattered across the prairies of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. In 1967 his father retired from the Air Force after 23 years, moved the family to the Seattle area and went to work for the Boeing Company.

“I thought I had died and gone to Heaven“, Cooper says, “I found out that the whole world didn’t look like Kansas.” He quickly set out to enjoy all the outdoor activities that the Pacific Northwest had to offer. He began exploring the mountains and beaches, hiking, camping, boating, and fishing.

Not far from his home in Edmonds he soon discovered the wreckage of an old wooden sailing ship, the barkentine Conqueror, on the beach.  Launched in 1918, the Conqueror was one of the last wooden sailing ships to be built on the West Coast and marked the end of the era of sail. With a keen interest in all things nautical, he often visited the old ship, thoroughly exploring every inch of the decaying relic of a not-so-distant past. Remarkably, he even found copies of old newspapers dating from World War 2 still in the shattered remains of the chart house.

As a child Cooper had little interest in art. His older brother, however, was an extremely talented artist, and encouraged his attempts at drawing. His brother would eventually win a scholarship to the renowned Kansas City Art Institute, becoming a graphic designer and commercial artist, working in Hollywood in the 1960’s and later in New York City.

Cooper can recall being mesmerized at an early age by 19th Century American landscape paintings. He would stare intently at scenes of the American wilderness that he found in his school books. It seemed to be an interest that was always present. His courses in school did not include any art studies.  Later, in college, there were no art classes on art technique or history.

In the 1970’s he began working in the silkscreen printing business cutting screen stencils by hand. This led to a great familiarity with letters and type of every description.  From there it was a natural transition to the art of sign lettering and brush work.

Around this time he took a trip to Ketchikan, Alaska to visit some old college friends who had moved there. For the return trip he joined the crew of a very small Tlingit Indian salmon gillnet boat that was southbound back to the States. It was a long trip on a very tiny, slow wooden boat but it was a great way to see the country up close. It was a life changing experience to sail down the Inside Passage, stopping in various Indian settlements and towns along the way.  A stint of gillnet fishing followed after getting back to Puget Sound.

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A LOVE FOR WOODEN BOATS

Cooper used his skills as a sign artist to get work in the shipyard of the Whitney-Fidalgo Cannery company, which was located in Magnolia, on the ship canal opposite Ballard.  In those days the fish canneries owned their own fleets of purse seine boats which they leased to the skippers.  These were usually very young men that ran these seiners and were bound by contract to sell their fish to the company. The fleet was kept at docks on the historic site of the old Maritime Shipyards building, where scores of wooden workboats had been built by hand in the decades that came before.

“It was my job to paint the names on all the boats”, said Cooper. It was a fascinating place for anyone who had an appreciation for old wooden boats.  There was a constant buzz of activity as the crews prepared their boats for the upcoming season and run up to Alaska. The boats were well taken care of by the company. Every year they had to be hauled out, the hulls de-fouled, scraped, and painted.  The hydraulic and electric systems, radar and radios needed to be working properly. The nets needed mending and rigging repaired.  The old diesel engines needed to be made as reliable as possible as lives depended on it.

Many of these boats were positively antiques. Some of them were 75 years old or more. They had carried generations of fishermen north to seek their fortunes and they were still being used for fishing. It was quite a testament to the men that built and maintained them that they were able to remain in use for so long.  “I had the run of the place. I got to work on all the boats”, Hart said.

It was at this time that Cooper came to know this nomadic sub-culture of young men, the crews that worked and lived on these boats.  He said, “I was taken by the pirate-like fantasy existence that they led.  They were free to run up and down the coast in those beautiful boats, working and living in the fantastic playground that was Southeast Alaska.” It seemed to him that somebody should be documenting this scene, this era, somehow. “It was fading into the past and nothing like it would likely ever come again.”

“I didn’t really see anybody else doing it, at least not like I thought it should be done”, he said. There were a few Northwest artists that did some fishing scenes but not really like he wanted to do.  “I wanted to be a marine artist but the only problem was I didn’t know how to paint,” he said. He set out to change that.

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SELF TAUGHT ARTIST

 Cooper was in his later twenties when he decided to teach himself to paint watercolors. “There was never any question that watercolor was the medium I wanted to use”, he said. It seemed like a natural for the pictures he wanted to make. He had always been a do-it-yourself type and usually just picked up a book and learned how to do home repairs or build things on his own.  He picked up some watercolor technique books and went to work.

“I was a closet painter.  I didn’t show it to anybody for a long time”, Cooper recalls. It took several years before he felt that his work was good enough to show to others. “I knew that I wanted to make contemporary seascapes with boats but in a traditional style”, he said. He began a large collection of books of landscape and marine artists of that period. He carefully studied the works of Winslow Homer, Fitzhugh Lane, Sanford Gifford, William Bradford, and others.

Eventually, in 1984, he took a dozen or so paintings to a small museum near the Seattle Aquarium called the Museum of the Sea and Ships. The curator decided, on the spot, to host a one man show. Soon after that he was invited to be represented by the Kirsten Gallery in Seattle, a well known venue showing local and national marine artists.

Cooper met his future wife, Karen, in 1980.  They lived at that time in a 1930’s log cabin in Woodway.  He was honing his watercolor skills while at the same time running his home based sign business. He was still often working on the waterfront and the docks of Seattle doing his sign work and lettering on the workboat fleet. He was able to balance the time so that he could work and learn his art simultaneously.

1984 was a pivotal year.  Cooper began showing his artwork in galleries around Seattle. He and Karen were married and she began her first year of medical school at the University of Washington. Cooper kept up the balancing act between work and painting all the while. Karen graduated from medical school in the class of 1988. Following that they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for three years of medical residency training, Cooper still doing artwork and working at local sign shops.

In 1989 he submitted an entry into the Mystic Seaport International Marine Art Exhibition in Mystic, Connecticut. This was the premier venue in the United States for the genre of marine painting. As it turned out his first time entry won one of the museum’s top awards, The Award of Excellence. Since that time he has been one of the museum’s “core” artists. Cooper has won the Award of Excellence twice and another top award, the David Thimgan Prize for best depiction of West Coast maritime history.

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They returned to the Northwest in 1991 and Karen began her medical practice with the Everett Clinic, for whom she has worked for nearly 28 years. They have two grown daughters and live near the town of Snohomish.

ON WATERCOLOR

For Cooper,” Watercolor seems like a technical skill that anyone can learn to master. It seems like anyone who can hold a brush can be taught to do it once you figure out the technical aspects”, he says. Of course, most people seem to disagree.  The goopy and noxious enamel paints used in sign lettering are nothing like the delicate watercolor paints. “The ability to control a brush already made the crossover to watercolor easier”, he says.

“Mistakes are not allowed in watercolor”, he says. “There is no going back. Anything that touches the paper is going to be there. You can’t cover it up or at least only to a very limited extent. You have to know exactly what you are doing because you can’t take it back.”

“In painting watercolor you move from the background to the foreground,” he says. First, the sky is washed in, sometimes requiring laying in 6 or 8 washes before he gets what he is looking for. This is where his background in printing comes in. In the printing process you have the three primary colors, red , yellow, and blue. “In watercolor, you need to have a balance of all three colors in the sky or the picture looks flat,” he says. He puts in washes that may have only a trace of red, blue, or yellow. “If they aren’t all there, it doesn’t look right.” With watercolor the light in the picture comes from the paper so you have to be cautious “not to muck it up with too much paint” which muddies the painting.

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Being a self-taught artist, Cooper had no formal training.  However he has intensely studied the works of those considered to be the masters of landscape and marine painting, both vintage and contemporary. He also tries to make it back to New England for the annual marine exhibitions on a regular basis. It is important to connect with the other artists, the top talent in the field, and see what they are doing artistically. “It’s also useful to see what is selling in the galleries and what isn’t.”

Cooper’s style is very traditional.  “On the East Coast they seem to hang on to traditions of all kinds, artistic or otherwise. There is nothing avant-garde about my work. Some people like  traditional art and some people don’t. It’s just the way I do it. I don’t know how other people develop a particular style. I just know how I do it.  I appreciate other people’s art and I would like to do some different things sometimes but I haven’t been able to yet.”

THE CHALLENGES OF BEING AN ARTIST

“Watercolor is a very immediate medium. Things can go bad really fast.” The artist doesn’t really know how the picture is going to turn out. “What you think you are going to do when you start may not resemble what you end up with. You have to be flexible. That can be a problem for some people, especially people like me who want to have such tight control over a rather difficult to control medium.”

Perhaps more challenging than watercolor itself is the business of art. Cooper points out that styles and trends come and go and seldom last very long. He remembers how marine art exhibits were sold out events in the 1970’s and 1980’s around Seattle. There were a number of marine painters in the region at the time. “Artists like Steve Mayo, William Ryan, Byron Birdsall, and Mark Myers seemed to be riding a wave that made them fairly successful at the time.”

Cooper notes that a lot of art galleries have disappeared from the Seattle area in the last decade, like the Kirsten Gallery, where he showed his work for some 35 years. There is a lot of conjecture by art dealers that younger people just aren’t buying art like people did in years past. The prohibitive cost of commercial real estate in Seattle is also a factor. Some dealers have theorized that the tiny size of apartments people live in now leave little room for artwork.

There are not many artists who can work both ends of the business, the creative end and the marketing end. The two aspects are usually mutually exclusive. Cooper’s advice to younger artists, “Keep your day job.”


AVOCATION and VOCATION as an ARTIST

While there are challenges to being an artist, it has allowed space and time for Cooper’s vocation as an artist to be integrated with his avocation, his passion for boats and the sea.

 Cooper often took the opportunity to go out on the boats he loved to paint and has sailed thousands of miles on the waters of Alaska or running through the Inside Passage. He has made hundreds of photos that were later used as reference for his artwork. “One of my greatest joys is getting out to sea in Alaska with a few old friends for a long trip on a slow boat. It’s just the sea and the sky. Time is suspended. Night and day are meaningless.”

Cooper was a witness to the last days of the wooden boat era.  By the 1970’s, wooden boats were no longer being built as commercial fishing vessels.  They are fading away now. The old boats are getting tired. Even the most stoutly built vessels are succumbing to the ravages of saltwater and rot. The costs of maintaining or repairing an old wooden boat are steep. It is growing more and more difficult to even find shipwrights who know how to work on wooden boats, though there are a few. Every year more of the old boats are lost at sea or abandoned on some forgotten tide flat. “A lot of the boats that I knew and worked on or painted have either sunk or rotted away,” he adds. “It’s all fading into the past. It’s a piece of the old Seattle that, like so much of what was, is going away. The fishing industry, along with the lumbermen and the ship builders made Seattle what it is.”

Purse seiner Aldebaran in Ketchikan, 1984

ART LEGACY

Cooper thinks that the work of his that will likely stand the test of time are the paintings that document the Northwest fishing scene. “In fifty years they may discover a cache of paintings by some artist who left a trove of fishing pictures in an attic somewhere but there are none that I am aware of.” He adds,” I hope that someone in the future will be able to appreciate my work for what it was, an accurate portrayal of a unique time and place by someone who was there. That’s all an artist can ask.”

Seven Seas (1991)

You can view Cooper Hart’s marine watercolors at the upcoming Vintage Watercolorists of Washington show at Sunnyshore Studio:

  • Saturdays, March 9, 16, 23 and 30
  • 10am – 5pm
  • Artist Reception, Saturday, March 9, 3-5pm
  • 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, Washington

Sunnyshore Studio is hosting this Vintage show in partnership with the Northwest Watercolor Society, one of the premier watercolor societies in the US.

Thomas William Jones: Vintage Watercolorist of Washington

Thomas William Jones is an artist of place: a Master artist who paints his impressions of the places where he has lived and what he has loved. The rural environment of his native OH first inspired his artistic gifts. And since 1967, the Pacific Northwest with its low light, long shadows, and rich hues has drawn them forth, like a conductor draws forth the musical gifts and passions of his orchestra.

Tom was born on August 13th, 1942 in Lakewood, Ohio.  He was a kid when they first moved into their Bay Village home, located along the shoreline of Lake Erie. It was during those initial Bay Village days that he remembers discovering earlier paintings that his father had done. Finding those watercolor paintings was a real beginning for him. “I remember watching my dad set up his paints on an old card table, usually about every other weekend.” Although Tom’s father wasn’t an artist by profession, he painted all his life. When recalling his father working with his brushes, paper and Windsor Newton paints, Tom says, “I think I was born with the Windsor Newton gene! I developed a sense of watercolor watching my dad paint.”

Tom grew up painting at a table alongside his dad and listening to stories of life during earlier Bay Village days. And while he and his father painted, Tom was also observing. Those images and stories came together, transferred into Tom’s heart and soul. He learned how to develop paintings and how paintings can tell the story of a place. Watercolor became natural for Tom, and he developed the ability to transfer his impressions to a painting. From that point on, Tom has  always loved watercolors. He “thinks in watercolor” and visualizes completed paintings in that medium.

As a kid, Tom remembers exploring the fields and woods with his dad and younger brother who also had a strong ability of painting in watercolors. Discovering other areas of Northern Ohio with its unique history, weather moods, and wildlife impacted his love of the landscape. All were deeply impressed upon his heart, giving him a sense of place. “Those beginnings were sort of my essence, my DNA, as far as watercolor goes,” he says.

Tom was also very fortunate to have Russ Larsen as his art teacher throughout junior and high school. Around 1956 or ’57, unbeknownst to Tom, Russ submitted one of his paintings for the National Scholastic Art Awards. Although Tom didn’t realize it at that time, the gold key award he won was a turning point. This kept him going and encouraged his latent artistic gifts. Russ continued following Tom’s career and became a life-long friend.

Amber's Horse

Amber’s Horse,  Artists of America Exhibition,

 

Education and beginning career

After Tom graduated from Bay Village High School in 1960, he attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. Tom recalls, “Art school was the best thing for me and I was fortunate to go to the Cleveland Institute of Art. I had some great instructors, some who had been there up to forty years.” 

Tom recalls at the time of not having a lot of patience for detailed studies, but instead wanted to ‘get to the brush’.  Being able to visualize what he saw as a completed painting, he knew he could get things down faster with a brush.

During the summers of art school, Tom worked as a ‘line boy’ at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. He obtained his private, commercial, and instrument ratings by doing aircraft paintings and landscapes for corporate pilots. Like with painting, he was inspired in aviation by his dad. (Tom continued his interest in flying and today flies his restored 1950 Cessna 140.)

After graduation in 1964, Tom decided he didn’t want to go on for a fifth year to get a teaching degree. He just wanted to get going! Knowing he was a good artist, but not having a lot of direction at that point, he then joined the National Guard. After the six months of active duty, he worked for an aviation corporation near Cleveland doing artwork. After a couple years, he got his first big break, a commission that would bring him West in 1967!

General Telephone Company of the NW was adding a new addition to their headquarters in Everett. The company president wanted the public to experience the rural areas they served through an artist’s paintings.

At that time, General Telephone Company represented the outlying areas of the Northwest: From rural Washington to western Montanaand down the coast into northern California. So there was a wealth of places for Tom to explore. He was able to travel to those places and meet the heads of the different regions. They took him around and showed him what was of interest in those spots. Then he was free to roam around and discover what excited him about those places. Tom says, “I was fortunate being able to have free reign. It was pretty special. It was a real challenge too. I agreed to do twenty five paintings and thought I could do two a month. Then thought, “Wow! I sure hope I can do two a month!”

The Northwest was new territory for Tom. He had never been west of the Mississippi. This challenging year also turned out to be a wonderful one. And he DID finish up on time!

In the middle of that year his technique changed from a more opaque approach to a looser transparent one. A lot of that change was due to the Northwest light. The sun was lower in the horizon due to the latitude, especially during the Fall months when he first arrived. Tom recalls, “I was totally immersed in the new angle of light compared to the Midwest and was simplifying my compositions because of it. The light was enhancing only portions of landscape, one side of a subject, part of a face. With these deeper contrasts and organic hues of the Northwest, I was ‘freeing up’ in terms of light and dark.”

The commission brought Tom to the Northwest and he’s lived here ever since. But roots go deep. Tom still loves that part of the country where he grew up. It is a part of him, as the Northwest has become a part of him too.

Another big change for Tom happened when he met a special person named Carrie in 1968 and they tied the knot in 1973. Tom says of Carrie, “Although not an artist, she’s developed an ‘eye’ for art and is a tremendous sounding board for understanding the ups and downs of painting. In Carrie I have the biggest fan when encouragement is needed. With her, I have another right arm!”

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Painting the White House

Tom had a second big break. Here is how it came about. He was part of the invitational Artists of America exhibition in Denver for twenty years; from 1980-2000.  During one of those exhibits, he met a gentleman who at the time was on the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. He thought Tom’s art would make a wonderful Presidential White House Christmas card, so made a presentation to Mrs. Reagan’s social staff. Mrs. Reagan liked Tom’s work and chose him to paint the Blue Room for their 1985 card.

Tom spent several days in the Blue Room creating preliminary drawings, but did the actual painting in his studio. Mrs. Reagan loved his art so much that she asked him to create the cards for the next three years (1986-1988). Those subjects were East Room, State Dining Room and North Entry Hall and he was free to choose any composition he wanted. As before, studies were done at the White House, but the paintings were created back in Tom’s studio. The artists are not compensated, but they keep their original art. He kept one and the others are in private collections. Tom was honored to have some of his studies included in the White House Historical Collection.

A Moment Alone

A Moment Alone,  1st place, Rocky Mountain National

 

Influences

In addition to his dad & Russ Larsen, there are others who have influenced him as an artist.

Tom recalls as a child having latched onto watercolor artists featured in hunting and fishing magazines. Most notably, the New England artist, Ogden Pleissner. Years later, Tom and Ogden were both included in one of Artists of America exhibitions and their paintings were hung in the same room. “It was a special time to express to him how much I had admired his work and the inspiration I received from it,” Tom remarks. 

“I also recall in the early 1960s flipping through an issue of  American Artist and on the watercolor page was Donald Teague’s Gold Medal winner from AWS, The Façade, and it was absolutely beautiful! Many years later I had an opportunity to tell him so at an exhibition we were both in.”

Tom continues: “The Northwest has been fertile ground for developing friendships with great people, many of whom happened to be artists. Among those are Mike Burns, William F. Reese, Perry Acker and the Dorseys. Carrie and I have been blessed to have lasting friendships with many collectors whose support and encouragement are like adrenaline to an artist. All have influenced our lives in so many ways.”

On Watercolor

For Tom, the beauty of watercolor is having an impression of what you want to create on that white sheet of paper and then to see that magic happen…to see it come alive! It is having everything unified where one cannot tell where it started or ended. Tom sums it up, “To have that happen on watercolor paper is one of the joys of painting for me.”

When it comes to watercolor, it is the light coming through his pigment that delights Tom the most. “Actually I like the paper light more than the pigment itself”, he says. “That feeling is very elusive in describing. But for me, it’s that beautiful light that comes through the paint that gives it that vibrancy.

Sioux Moccasins

Sioux Moccasins,  AWS Bronze medal

 

Lessons

When asked about lessons for the next generation of artists, Tom jokes, “Don’t do it! Don’t ever do it!”

Tom points out that artistic life is a journey. “The lessons and experiences are going to be different for everybody due to the nature of art itself. There are no set paths, but there are certain ‘givens’ that I try to follow. Find an artistic route that’s comfortable for you. Keep walking and building confidence in your abilities. Maintain high standards while believing in your talents. Show your art wherever and whenever you can. And if there are rejections, know that we all have had them. Accept those as positives and keep going with encouraging people surrounding you.”

Tom believes that at a certain point in time there is a need for a little bit of selfishness, so you have to paint for yourself first.

Legacy

Tom hopes that others have connected with what he has created over the years and in doing so, they will remember images or conversations about his art. He would like to think that others will ‘live’ in his art, as he has done. And it seems they have. Over the years, Tom has received recognition for his artistic gifts, winning many awards. His paintings are sought after by collectors nationwide.

Tom’s gift is to have deep impressions of places he has lived and loved and to be able to put those on the white of watercolor paper to bring you to those places with him.

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We want to thank the Northwest Watercolor society for their partnership in our inaugural Vintage Watercolorist of Washington show.

We also want to thank David and Mary Anne Keyser and the Jack Dorsey family for sponsoring this years show!

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