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Loving Our Ocean Through Art

Loving Our Ocean Through Art

Watercolor Artist Dances With Her Brush to Paint Dynamic Ocean Landscapes

ECOlunchbox sat down with California artist Julie Cohn to learn more about her artistic and personal relationship with our oceans. Cohn is the founder and CEO of Sustaining Arts, an online gallery and group of artists who care about social justice and the environment. Cohn and the other Sustaining Arts painters view their creations as a reflection of their care for people and our planet. Cohn gives voice in this interview to her love of oceans and how she brings to life our Big Blue’s dynamic forms in her luminescent watercolor paintings.

At ECOlunchbox, we're passionate about celebrating and protecting our oceans through our plastic-free work. We absolutely love your ocean watercolors. Can you tell us a bit about your connection with the ocean? Why were you drawn to our Big Blue as a recurring subject matter?

My first experiences with the ocean were as a child on the edges of the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. I loved to play in and out of the dancing waves along the shoreline. As an adult, my most profound ocean experiences have been with my husband Michael in the Atlantic Ocean. Just about every year, we ride waves in the warm waters of Avalon in southern New Jersey. Starting from around five years old, Michael learned to ride individual waves, feel curling and plummeting energy, and assess when to ride and when not to. I was afraid of the waves at first. With a keen eye for angles, he would tell me, “Don’t take that one. The angle is too severe,” or, “You need to feel the pull of a wave and follow it backward for a second before you dive to catch it.” Michael has taught me how to appreciate the ocean's power and energy.

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The luminescence and movement in your watercolor paintings of the ocean are so realistic. When I'm looking at your paintings, I feel immersed in the oceanscapes you've created. Are you a plein air painter? How do you achieve such emotive paintings? I'd love to hear about your artistic process for capturing the essence of ocean beauty.

When I ask myself what attracts me so to the ocean, I feel the energy of a primordial force, the pulse of life that keeps all of us alive. The ocean is the biggest being that exists on this planet besides the sky that hugs it. As a spirit being, this body of water moves like an irregular heartbeat, with a rhythm all its own, a driving rhythm that is in harmony with the climate around it, dancing with vigor or ease depending on the emotional patterns in the sky and the moon’s gravitational pull.

When I paint the sea, I feel it in my body, as though it is turning and dancing within. I can feel the uneven yet graceful undulations as I paint. This didn’t come from just the feelings inside me. I do believe, however, that this is what affects the natural look of my ocean paintings. For many years I have studied the anatomy of the sea, understanding each wave and how it works, how it looks, and how watercolor can be applied. 

Over time my watercolors of the ocean have become less stiff. Floating in the ocean helps me connect to her rhythm to create that flowing feeling in my paintings. Sometimes I even pretend that I’m in the ocean, and I sway back and forth while standing, as though the waves are pushing me from different directions. In a line of ocean murmurings, there are no two swells that are the same size or shape. In my watercolors, I am floating along as if in an asymmetrical, sonic drumbeat.

I'd love to get your advice on how to see the ocean through an artist's eyes. What are you looking for when collecting visual details for a painting? If we can learn to see deeply, I believe we can grow our connections with the world around us. What's something we can tune our powers of perception to when observing the ocean? Being connected with Mother Earth, in my opinion, is the first step toward activating to protect what we love.

Although I look at the ocean as an artist, imagining how I might replicate the transparently lit turns of a plunging wave, I also enjoy viewing it as a body of water choreographing a dance each day, each hour, each minute. The waves can cut a sharp mood as they turn over, or they can relax as they sunbathe, smoothly and gracefully curling into foam. On a stormy day, the wind plays a big part in the ocean dance, determining the confluence of two waves swiftly moving toward each other, abruptly uniting where their foam strikes, and then dissolving for a few moments before another surge of energy creates the next pair of colliding partners.

This seemingly timeless miracle that we call the ocean has become a part of my being, so when I paint, I don’t look at ocean photos as a resource. Mostly I paint comfortably inside, and occasionally I paint smaller works by the shore. To render the ocean, my brush skims lightly along the surface of D’Arches watercolor paper for foam and then presses vigorously to express the luminous transparency and dark opacity of the water. I dig deep into watercolor wells of viscous paint on my palette. I love applying this medium opaquely and transparently. The combination of both consistencies is what makes watercolor sing for me. 

When I paint, I imagine all kinds of blues and greens, even violets and oranges that help me express this vibrant body of water. I mix the subtle colors of the ocean by adding small amounts of oranges and reds to blues and greens. To create luminous passages, I sometimes add bits of yellow and gold. More important than finding the exact colors I see or remember, I feel the ocean within and express the harmony of our combined energy.

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In terms of environmental subject matter, what are your thoughts on painting the beauty of our Earth versus depicting the horrors of plastic pollution and other travesties? 

I aim to illustrate through my emotional connection to the sea’s vibrant and powerful abstracted seascapes. I focus on the positive quality of the ocean so that I and others can really appreciate her beauty. The stronger we feel that connection, the less likely we are to want to see her polluted. 

I realized that I could make paintings with plastic bottles in them showing how the ocean is being abused. I would rather exalt her majesty and mystery and help people understand how important this body of water is to us by appreciating her strength and regal presence. When we are dealing with something as powerful as the ocean, we need to respect it. She is not only powerful in terms of energy; she gives us our sustenance. We could not live without her. As I applaud and bring to light the essence of the ocean, I exalt her to a level that she deserves to be seen. A pretty picture of the ocean on a postcard can be a reminder of her beauty. I like to connect to the ocean’s core, illuminating her as a vital force in our lives. 

As much as humans everywhere profess to love our oceans, our collective polluting and extractive actions speak louder than words. More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic pollute our oceans. Scientists say that every minute a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into our oceans. Overfishing, oil drilling, toxic dumping, and so many other ocean abuses are threatening our planet. Corporate and political leaders are being called to action to save our planet. What do you think the role of an artist is as we face the existential crisis of global environmental catastrophe?

Some artists want us to see what is ugly and not desirable. This way of representing what’s happening around us is equally as important as making art that shows beauty. Art can be used to educate about what is NOT working on our planet. Ultimately, we are all artists in our own way, creating in any way that we know how to help people understand how we are all connected. In order to prevent plastics from harming our oceans and our sea life, we need to understand that we as individuals are part of the cause of the pollution that continues to change our once pristine environment. The ocean is like a wise child -- forever vibrant, forever young -- and only if we listen to her needs and appreciate her, can we sustain her and our own well-being.  

Julie Cohn’s organization Sustaining Arts exhibits and sells sophisticated, emotive, and thought-provoking representational and abstract art in the form of originals and limited edition prints. The mission-based Berkeley, Calif. artists’ group donates a portion of all sales to charity.

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