Ocean Liner Paintings – An Interview With Wayne Mazzotta

I had recently the opportunity to connect with the New-York based painter Wayne Mazotta, and interviewed him for MaritimeMatters – Martin Cox

MS Giulio Cesare oil on canvas / 22x28 / 2008 (Giulio Cesare 1951-1973) by Wayne Mazzotta

Martin Cox: Hello Wayne, I’d like to introduce your art work to the MaritimeMatters readers.  Could you tell us about your art background, when you began making images? And what were your first subjects?

WM: I have been painting since I graduated art school in the late 1970s, but I was all over the place as far as subject matter and technique are concerned. I was very inspired by landscape painting but I also did still life and figures. At the time most of the artists I knew were painting modernist, abstract paintings but I was attracted to realism and the challenge of creating illusion. In the mid-1980s I worked as a studio assistant to a well-known photo-realist painter. He did giant paintings of pinball machines, penny gum dispensers and antique toys that were beautiful, but I didn’t feel the need to have my paintings look like photographs. I did learn a lot about technique and color from him and I did complete a few photo-realist paintings. My current paintings display a more painterly approach to realism and I intend for them to look like paintings. They are also entirely made up using many different elements rather than painstakingly replicating a photo. Many aspects are also often pushed to exaggerated extremes in regard to color or dramatic lighting that may not actually exist in nature. My new paintings are pure fantasy and are not meant to look like authentic scenes, though they may come near that. They are more vivid than real life and are quite improbable pictorially. Nevertheless, I often get the impression that many people view them as if I taken a photograph and simply made a painting of it, but this is far from true.

1960 Plymouth with QE2 Reflection color pencil on board / 10.5 x 14 / 2009 (QE2 1969- ) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: When did ships begin appearing in your work and how has that imagery developed?

WM: In the mid 1980s I decided to paint a favorite ship for my own pleasure. It was the Titanic, which is the ship that launched my love of ocean liners that goes back to my boyhood. Every April 15th I would watch the 1958 black and white British movie of Walter Lord’s, “A Night To Remember,” and I was mesmerized by it. It wasn’t until many decades later when I began to study the famous liners that my fascination would be satisfied and ships became an obsession of mine. The painting of the Titanic was a broadside view and I completed the entire ship, leaving the sky and water blank, so I covered the area around the ship white with sky-blue paint. The result was that the ship appeared to be hovering in space since there was no water beneath the hull. Next I worked up the effect by painting a shadow below the hull to resemble the floor of the sea. The result was the Titanic appearing to be hovering in space as if the water had disappeared. It was a quirky and unique approach to ship portraiture and it launched a whole series of floating ocean liners, which I sold through a gallery in Palm Beach, Florida. It was a very successful series. After that I veered away from ships and completed a series of close-up views of ocean storm waves breaking on the shore. Here again the waves looked real but they were very idealized. This was also a successful series and sold very well. The largest wave painting was 12 feet long and was one continuous wave breaking across the canvas. Meanwhile, during the two series I was working a full-time job at an advertising agency, so all the work had to be done evenings and weekends. This is the same schedule I’m on today and it is necessary for me to paint every day of the week.

SS America and Parked Cars oil on canvas / 36x48 / 2009 (America 1940-1994) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: There is an interesting juxtaposition with mid-century cars showing up in your paintings. Are cars and ships parallel interests? When did they begin to intersect in your work?

WM: I grew up in car culture and still like it very much today. When I was young my dad would work maintaining and repairing our cars and take me to auto shows and car races. I grew up in central Connecticut where they grew tobacco for cigar wrappers, and for some reason it was legal to work on the farms during the summer beginning at 13 years old. My friends and I all did and by the time I was 16 I had a good amount of money saved and with a little help from my dad I was able to buy a nice car. I purchased a beautiful black Impala Super Sport that I was constantly tinkering with. I had one of the best cars in the entire high school and I knew the make and year of every car on the road. I still follow the market for automobiles as well as for cruise ships. I never had the idea to paint cars but I once did a painting of a very large dump truck. I ended up painting it on the beach with waves breaking in the background.

I also grew up across the Connecticut River from Middletown, Connecticut, where there were a lot of boat yards to explore and play in. One of them had had a fire some years back and it was now abandoned, so we were able to climb on the boats, many of which had been yachts and sailboats. Many had been burned or were charred from the fire and lying on the ground. I used to dream of fixing one of them up. Perhaps this experience had something to do with my love for boats and ships.

In the late 1990s I wasn’t painting regularly but occasionally picked up a brush to play around with, painting a ship just to do something. Eventually I decided I wanted to paint a white ocean liner instead of the traditional black hull that was the dominant color. I selected the Italian liner Giulio Cesare from 1951, which while not a very popular ship I thought was beautiful. After I had worked on the ship I couldn’t decide what to place in the foreground and had the idea to position some parked cars. In the 1950s there were still a lot of cars on the road from the ’30s and ’40s, so I arranged a group of old parked cars. It was a lot of fun and I was very satisfied with the finished painting. The gleaming white ship in the sun under a blue sky with an odd assortment of cars parked in front of it somehow worked. The cluster of old cars almost stole the show, so I decided to do another painting, but this time I wanted the cars larger and closer to the viewer. The result was my painting of the SS America from 1940. While I was working on that painting I had the idea of imagining myself sitting in a car parked at the pier and looking through the windshield at a ship coming into port. That painting was the red dashboard of a 1959 Cadillac, and outside the windshield was the approaching 1927 Italian liner Conte Grande. I had united two of my passions into one painting – an iconic finned Cadillac and one of the most lavishly decorated ships of all time. It encouraged me to paint another.

Red Dashboard: ’59 Cadillac and SS Conte Grande oil on canvas / 36x48 / 2009 (Conte Grande 1928-1961) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: Perhaps you’d like to mention the scale of your work and the media you use?

WM: Most of my paintings are first worked out as drawings in colored pencil and are approximately 14 inches wide. The ocean liner and vintage car paintings are 3 feet by 4 feet oil on canvas.

MC: How do you begin the process for each piece and how long might one take to complete?

WM: It’s always necessary for me to work up conceptual drawings of potential paintings because they’re composed from many different elements. As I already mentioned, it’s not simply taking a photo and then transposing it into a painting. It’s very time consuming researching the ship and cars, working out the various perspectives so final result looks relatively realistic, making certain the light and shadows are correct, and that everything has a continuity. There aren’t many color photographs of the older liners that I’ve painted so I have to determine the colors of everything as well. A keen eye may be able to determine that some of the perspectives may be slightly off but I think this lends a cartoon-like charm to the work. Often it’s necessary to exaggerate the perspective of the cars to fit the design scheme. Once I decide on the composition, I begin the laborious work of laying out the composition, altering the perspectives of both the ship and cars while constantly referring to reference photographs. It would be impossible, for example, to remember the minute details of a particular make and model car’s dashboard while keeping everything in proportion. It constantly requires redrawing and adjusting. Once I begin painting the same holds true. I also may get another idea and decide to make changes. Sometimes an accidental effect will lead me in an entirely different direction.

In regard to the cars I want the viewer to be able to recognize precisely what make and year the dashboard belongs to. Perhaps they even owned one years ago. The Thunderbird dashboard that I’m working on now was a car my uncle owned when I was 11 or 12 years old, and I adored it. I would go out and sit in it when it was parked in the driveway, admiring its luxury and space-age influences. The two big round tail lights on the ’63 Thunderbird were designed to resemble jet turbines, which were the ultimate at the time. The space age was a major influence for car makers in the 1950s. It was common for cars to have a rocket-styled hood ornament or be named after something futuristic. It was one of my favorite cars and still is.

Blue Dashboard: ’60 Mercury and SS Caronia Oil on canvas / 36x48 / 2010 (Caronia 1949-1974) by Wayne Mazzotta

I would also like to mention that I enjoy many different ocean liners from various periods. I’m inclined to paint the more obscure ships since so many artists have rendered the legendary ones such as the Normandie or Queen Mary, both of which are favorites of mine. Every time I travel to Los Angeles I make it a point to stay at least one night on the Queen Mary in one of her old staterooms. Considering her design and incredible history including war duty I may go as far as listing the Queen Mary as my favorite ocean liner. That is despite becoming obsessed with so many others through the years. Right now I seem to be in my Italian ship period, mostly due to their astonishing interior design, but I also think that many Italian ships such as the Andrea Doria have truly gorgeous-looking exteriors. I have also recently completed a painting of the QE2, which was a wonderful transatlantic liner. I never appreciated her from the start but after several cruises and six crossings I’ve grown to admire her for many reasons. For one, there was nothing more satisfying than thundering across the Atlantic at 28 knots on the QE2. I would often walk through the gift shop to stop and listen to the teapots and glass tinkling as a result of her speed. It was like music. I also enjoyed stormy crossings since I’ve not yet been a victim of sea sickness. Once on the QE2 I was given the most forward cabin, and because it was located where the bow narrows it wasn’t a perfect square. The crew was forced to close the massive metal hatch on the porthole and during the night I was literally levitating in bed as the ship rode the waves. It was an extraordinary experience. I’ve always wished I could travel back in time to experience crossing on some of the greatest transatlantic liners such as the Mauretania or United States. I can only imagine what it must have been like on a voyage on the Olympic, the sister ship to the Titanic. I can only imagine what it must have been like experiencing the beauty of ships such as the Aquitania or the Paris. Though I also enjoy cruising on today’s ships it’s always somewhat of a disappointment sleepily meandering around the Caribbean on one of the slowly cruising white behemoths.

White Dashboard: ’63 Thunderbird and SS Michelangelo Color pencil on paper / 10.5 x 14 / 2012 (Michelangelo 1965-1991) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: How do you begin the process for each piece and how long might one take to complete?

WM: It’s difficult to explain where the concept of one of my paintings comes from, but it’s essentially being able to visualize the finished painting in my mind and then taking the necessary steps to make it a reality. Before even beginning the drawing or painting it takes a lot of research and study of the specific ship as well as the cars. I pore through photographs of the ship for details, and I often go to summer classic car shows and look at the cars and take some reference photos from different viewpoints of both the interior and the exterior. Several summers ago in New York a gentleman allowed me sit in his lovely 1957 Plymouth convertible parade car so I could study the dashboard and view through the windshield. I ended up using that car in a painting. The paintings continuously require adjustments and repainting. I may be forced to completely repaint a sky because I’m not satisfied or I may decide to paint the water rough instead of calm. A major part of being a painter is allowing for discovery. All in all it ends up taking me two or three months to complete a painting. Occasionally I’ll get a commission for a painting of a specific ship or be hired to complete some illustrations of ocean liners, so I’ll take a break to work on that. Last week I put a painting aside in order to work on a commission to paint a portrait of a clipper ship from 1854, which is likely to be a challenge since I’ve never painted a ship under sail before.

MV Britannic oil on canvas / 36x48 / 2010 (Britannic 1930-1960) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: I am interested in your influences. Are there other maritime artists you admire or any you could say were an influence on your work?

WM: I have always admired classical painting where technique was a major concern. If an old master painted fabric it looked like fabric. Gold looked shiny and reflective like gold. Trees had many leaves rather than large green areas of color that suggested leaves. I have always attempted to capture this essence in everything I painted though it may be streamlined or modernized. As far as naming particular artists that have influenced me it is difficult to answer. I could mention art movements such as Baroque or Mannerism, but there are many more throughout history that I also admired. The 19th century Hudson River School is a more recent movement whose aesthetic vision has certainly been an influence. I greatly admire Frederick Church and Thomas Cole. I think it’s fair to say that they attempted to make everything more beautiful than it really was, or strove to capture a small window when perhaps the scene was absolutely spectacular. What I appreciate most about the Hudson River painters were their atmospheric skies, and as a result I place a lot of effort into mine. I think, too, that my nature as an artist somehow seems to correlate with their philosophy of beauty, and practically everything I paint tends to look more resplendent than reality.

A few maritime artists that I really like are Antonio Jacobsen, John Stobart, Norman Wilkinson, and Albert Brenet. A few contemporary artists that immediately come to mind are Ken Marschall and Robert Lloyd, to name only two. There are also quite a few I can’t even name but have done some superlative ship paintings. There have been some wonderful postcard artists before the shipping lines switched to using photographs regularly.

I also admire vintage travel posters from the 1920s and ’30s with their beautiful simplification of design and bright color. Turn-of-the-century circus posters are brilliant ideals of the shows, with many different things going on all at once. Pre-photography illustrators such as J.C. Lyendecker or N.C. Wyeth are two favorites.

As I’ve already mentioned, I find postcard art quite delightful. I think the influence there is quite obvious in my work with their rich color and fantasized depictions of ocean liners in mid ocean or entering a port. I’m often amused how the artist often exaggerated the scale of a ship by placing tiny sailboats or tugs below a towering black hull or streamlining the entire ship to suggest power and speed. Lighting effects were also often dramatized and the effects frequently produced works that looked realistic but at the same time somehow didn’t.

I also enjoy looking at automobile advertisements when they were illustrated by artists. They did some pretty wild stuff in the ’50s and ’60s, frequently placing the cars in exotic locations with very pretty people. Most of it is very stylized and totally unrealistic but impeccably executed by the artists. I continue to be amazed with some ads that depict night scenes where the ability of the artists in capturing headlight illumination is brilliant. The cars were often exaggerated to subtly appear longer, wider or larger as well. It was great work.

In my paintings I always like to add a bit of storytelling rather than producing a straightforward ship portrait. I like to engage the viewer to notice things that may not quite be evident at first glance. As an example, in one of my paintings there is a black Cadillac predominantly double-parked with a driver sitting in the car. In another, at a drive-in movie, a couple is embracing in one of the cars. One other painting has a man standing there with his little boy looking at the ship. While it may be a sentimental gesture, at the same time it adds a touch of human emotion to the painting. Though they may not match Norman Rockwell and they may be trifling additions, I feel they contribute another level of depth to the painting rather than it being simply a painting of a ship. Another example is the Thunderbird painting I’m working on now, where the car is parked looking out towards the Hudson River with the two pier sheds in view. I thought it would be more interesting to have the steering wheel turned to the right and the turn signal in the dashboard lit, almost as if to indicate the motor might still be running and as if to suggest that the driver was staying just long enough to see the Michelangelo depart. I wonder how many viewers may even consciously notice this.

SS City of New York oil on canvas / 18x24 / 2010 / private collection (City of New York 1888-1923) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC:  How has your work changed over time, and do you have plans for exhibitions or publications that you’d like to tell us about?

I have relaxed much more as an artist today and I’m very comfortable with what I am painting now. Strange as it may sound, sometimes I feel that my work is precisely what I’m meant to do be doing, and since I have a huge backlog of paintings that I would like to eventually do, I feel fortunate to be so stimulated. The painting I’m working on almost always seems to lead me to the next one. An artist is usually his own worst critic and I’m far from concerned about being the kind of artist I want to be or am not. For several years I even fought the desire to paint ships and now I wish I could have focused more on it earlier.

From the start I had planned on completing ten paintings in this series and then searching for an appropriate gallery or venue to exhibit and sell them. I’m halfway through completing the eighth one now, which is a painting of a 1963 Thunderbird dashboard with the SS Michelangelo being maneuvered by tugs at the New York piers. However, I’m constantly getting ideas for new paintings in the series so I may continue. I have many more ideas for the ocean liner and car series so I can’t see an end just yet.

SS France with Three Convertibles Color pencil on paper / 10.5 x 14 / 2011 (France 1961-2008) by Wayne Mazzotta
SS France with Three Convertibles oil on canvas / 36x48 / 2011 (France 1961-2008) by Wayne Mazzotta

MC: I see you have prints on your site. Can you tell us how the process works to go from a painting to a limited addition print?

Because of several requests I have just started to sell prints of my new paintings. When I finish a painting I bring it to a professional photography studio in New York that specializes in shooting art for galleries and museums. They produce a formatted digital file and then a high-quality print is produced from that file on archival paper. These are the highest-quality prints available and because they are made using the photography studio’s digital file they look exactly like the actual painting.

Right now I’m not doing limited edition prints because it’s too difficult to judge how many might sell, plus there are so many paintings. I didn’t want to produce editions and not sell enough to cover the costs of paper and printing. Instead I’m offering individually signed prints. I’m also offering a variety of print sizes to accommodate different budgets.

Interested readers can view my personal website at www.oceanlinerpaintings.com or they can do an Internet search for Wayne Mazzotta and the website should be listed. The website is a short history of my work with paintings from various periods of my maritime art. I’m regularly adding new paintings to the site as I complete them. I am only offering prints of my new series since some of the older paintings on my website are in private collections or no digital files exist for producing good prints. The website also includes a drawings link of concept drawings for paintings, and viewers can compare the drawings to the final paintings. Another link shows the publications that I have completed illustrations for. Visitors can also contact me through the website via the contact link. I welcome all comments and inquiries. I’m working on adding a Facebook share link as well as a personal blog in the near future.

MC: Wayne, thank you for taking the time to do this interview and for sharing your work with MaritimeMatters readers and I’d like to remind everyone that Wayne’s art work is up on the web at www.oceanlinerpaintings.com



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