Vista Point: Who knows what makes a seascape memorable?

By Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate July 02, 2013 01:32 pm

A confluence of thoughts and plans has taken my mind offshore, and I find it drifting into unfamiliar waters, well out of its depth.

Time permits only one wave’s recounting today.

I was browsing the website Tumblr.com, a smorgasbord of cartoons and art, both highbrow and low, and paused when I saw a painting by San Francisco artist Kim Cogan, whose work consists mostly of urban landscapes that display a talent for capturing light. He has recently taken an interest in seascapes, and one of them in particular, “Wave no. 18,” struck me in a way seascapes never have before. 

(This painting and several of his other seascapes can be seen at hespegallery.blogspot.com/2012/09/kim-cogan-sea-change-september-4.html.)

Much as I like the real thing, no seascape had given me that spiritual rush, that need to drop anchor and stay awhile that good art or scenery can provide.

I think I got a bad first impression of seascape paintings. The earliest one I recall was a large painting of basaltic rocks in a scummy, raw umber hue upon which crashed an unenthusiastic wave of dull blue and dingy white foam under an excrementally brown sky.

It hung above my piano teacher’s Kimball, where I, a fidgety 7-year-old, cultivated the art of not paying attention more than that of plunking. I spent a lot of time looking at that seascape and perhaps that was the problem. Dull and static, time frozen in a dirty ice cube, it bored me in a way the sea itself did not.

I don’t really know anything about art or art theory, about what separates a great seascape from a meh-scape. All I know is I like what I like, and I can’t even say why most of the time.

“Wave no. 18” is a curious seascape, and I am at pains to say why it struck me.

There is no storm-tossed oarsman nor spray-inducing shore rocks nor shore of any kind. It’s just a wave, and not even all of that. The breaking wave is so far to the right of the canvas that it runs out of view, an awkward fraction of it cropped out.

The horizon line is askew. It’s almost as if the painter took a crooked, off-center photograph and decided to paint it anyway.

The colors are delicate, not vivid. The sky has the pale honest brightness of morning, and the light hits the back of a cold dark wave with a magical soft warm light.

The view of the wave is oblique, and here the light works its most cunning magic because it transluces through the shoulder of the wave, emerging out the other side in a rich blend of muddy yet somehow luminous greens laced in a warm white lather. (Cogan’s thick, creamy seafoam is one of the things that make his seascapes stand apart. A fire extinguisher couldn’t conjure so much froth.)

The shoulder of the wave spreads flat in the foreground, blanketed in tufted bands of foam, the water below it washed out by the morning light.

Altogether, it conveys a gentleness easily missed in a crashing wave, taking the focus from the sturm und drang center to its periphery where the tidal force remains a thing of grace and delicacy.

The algal green light passing through the corner of the wave is not a terribly pleasing color, and yet I think the delicate play of light there is what I like most about the painting.

In thinking so much about “Wave no. 18,” I’ve spent so much time looking at it that I’ve just about memorized it. Unlike my piano teacher’s dreary seascape, staring at this one never deadens it.

Why, I can’t say. It’s somehow real and not real, ordinary and magical, powerful and gentle. A balance, really, like an arcing wave reaching the tipping point: Maybe it will break or maybe just subside.

Reach Assistant Editor Matthew C. Durkee at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it