Christopher Blossom | Sail Away

Taking the Tow, oil, 25 x 28. painting, southwest art.
Taking the Tow, oil, 25 x 28.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

“The last 15 years have been very good ones. I’ve been busy in the studio working on one-man shows, group shows, national exhibitions, and commissions. The one thing that has been lacking has been time spent on the water.

“In truth, virtually all of my painting ideas come from things I have seen or experienced on the water. Whether it’s the light or atmosphere, type of clouds, or how a vessel reacts in waves flat calms to gales—these are all things of which I have first-hand knowledge, and I hope some of that experience comes through for the people who enjoy my paintings.

“The time has come to spend some extended time on the water again to form a new storehouse of knowledge and experiences upon which to draw once back in the studio. So I am taking the family my wife Pat and sons Travers, age 10, and Ian, age 5 and heading south. We sail from Connecticut around the end of this month for about a year. We intend to get into the Bahamas and see how we like how things are going. We may continue on into the Caribbean or just winter over in the Bahamas. We expect to be back by next fall, but our schedule is very loose. We’re all looking forward to this adventure. “

—Christopher Blossom, September 25, 1998

Among the Rolling Breakers, oil 30 x 50. painting, southwest art.
Among the Rolling Breakers, oil 30 x 50.

A month after writing the preceding letter, Blossom boarded his 33-foot sailboat, Arcadia, with his wife, Pat, and two young sons. The foursome set sail from Bridgeport, CT, and headed due south along the Intercoastal Waterway to the Bahama Islands for a yearlong odyssey at sea. The getaway, to the 700-island chain south of Florida, was packed with adventures and time to paint, reflect, and replenish creative juices. “As a marine artist I was concentrating on water and atmosphere, but I was not spending enough time on the water. I was feeling stale,” Blossom says.

A modest, thoughtful man, Blossom is known for his complex, detailed compositions of ships at sea. He has a long-standing passion for marine history that includes extensive research of ship construction. For example, when talking about the painting Benjamin Sewall Arriving at San Francisco Bay, he readily explains that the sailing sloop portrayed is one of the last of the square-rigged ships built in Maine between 1880 and 1890. Before Blossom paints a vessel he is likely to study the ship’s blueprints to learn about its hull design, length, tonnage, and deck layout. “I try to portray the feeling of excitement and well-being that sailors feel when they are around water,” he says.

Cat Island, The Hermitage Overlooking the Exuma Sound [1999], 9 x 12. painting, southwest art.
Cat Island, The Hermitage Overlooking the Exuma Sound [1999], 9 x 12.

His marine paintings and scenes from maritime history have been exhibited at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, and the Colorado Museum of History in Denver. He is regularly invited to participate in the prestigious Prix de West Invitational in Oklahoma City, OK, and the Artists of America show in Denver.

Blossom has been sailing since he was 6 years old, often spending his summers aboard his father’s boat. He was born and raised in Connecticut, and his father and grandfather were well-known illustrators. From an early age, Blossom developed dual passions: sailing and art. After informal art studies with his father, he attended the Parsons School of Design in New York. During that time he worked in an industrial design studio where he learned how to interpret blueprints of all kinds—a skill that would come in handy in creating accurate renderings of ships and historical buildings. He worked briefly as an illustrator before deciding on a full-time career in fine art. Today Blossom remarks half-jokingly, “Maybe painting is just an excuse to spend more time on boats.”

Berry Islands, Ashore at Soldier Cay [1999], oil, 12 x 9. painting, southwest art.
Berry Islands, Ashore at Soldier Cay [1999], oil, 12 x 9.

When he bought the Arcadia in 1992 it was with the idea of taking an extended trip, but he mulled the thought over for several years before taking action. “It took a long time to set things up,” Blossom says. “I had to prepare the boat, make sure we had everything, and deal with all the problems of disengaging ourselves from shore-side life, the real world. Once you are on the water, it’s not the real world.”

For his trip south, he packed the necessary food and first-aid items as well painting supplies including a hundred 9-by-12-inch primed canvases, a portable easel, several dozen brushes, and three sets of oil paints—about 40 tubes of color.

There was an initial period of adjustment. First, he had to get used to a slower pace. “It took about two months to break patterns of what is a lifetime of running around,” Blossom says. “We had to get used to the idea that we didn’t have to get somewhere every day and to fact that the weather was the main factor guiding our daily plans.”

Blossom also had to adjust to the amount of time boat maintenance consumed. It was time subtracted from painting. For example, the family had planned to arrive in the Bahamas by Christmas. Instead they spent the holiday stuck in Boca Raton, FL, waiting for a boat part to arrive from Seattle. A friend mailed them a pine branch from their Christmas tree. The family made ornaments from shells to decorate it. On Christmas Day they dined aboard the boat on fresh shrimp and linguini. For dessert: Little Debbie Christmas tree cakes.

Exuma Islands, Stocking Island Palms [1999], oil, 9 x 12. painting, southwest art.
Exuma Islands, Stocking Island Palms [1999], oil, 9 x 12.

The Blossoms arrived in the Bahamas in January, slipping quietly into a picturesque harbor on the Berry Islands. Blossom promptly pulled out a sketchpad and drew the scene that later became the painting Ashore at Soldier Cay. “It was completely deserted, and there was no sign of life,” he says. “We felt like we were on the edge of the earth. I kept saying over and over, ‘I can’t believe we are here.’ ” In the spare painting, he captures the languid blue-green water with his sailboat, the Arcadia, in the background. The family’s dinghy rests on a pristine sandy beach in the foreground.

The simplicity of the painting is striking to anyone familiar with Blossom’s trademark detailed compositions and depictions. Ashore at Soldier Cay was the first in a series of about 50 paintings he would complete on his sailing adventure. It was not until he reached the Bahamas that he began to paint in earnest. The first three months were consumed by the journey. Early on in the Bahamas, he established a routine. He rose daily just before dawn, made coffee, read, and sometimes rowed the dinghy to a nearby destination for exercise. By 8 o’clock he was hiking and hunting for a scene that captured his imagination. He then painted for several hours until the light changed and turned flat.

Benjamin Sewall Arriving in San Francisco Bay [2000], oil, 24 x 38. painting, southwest art.
Benjamin Sewall Arriving in San Francisco Bay [2000], oil, 24 x 38.

Often, as was the case when he painted in small towns like Black Point on the Exuma Islands, school children would gather around to watch and ask him to paint them. Everyday held new sights and experiences. He painted surrounded by pink sandy beaches, mangrove forests, palm trees, and sunny blue skies. Frequently he heard about many special places from other “cruisers”—people who were on extended sailing trips. Such was the case the day he hiked up to the highest point on Cat Island, where he painted Hermitage, a depiction of a tiny stone chapel overlooking the sea. The chapel was once home to a retired priest, a legendary hermit. Another time he found satisfaction painting a detailed study of palm fronds that he titled Stocking Island Palms.

The light was so brilliant in the Bahamas that Blossom frequently struggled to achieve the right color palette in his works. His palette changed dramatically from the moodier, darker one he worked with back home. “I had to adapt what I had with me. I didn’t have the option of getting any more colors,” he says. “There was a lot of trial and error. The water in particular is so different. In the east it is dark and murky. In the Bahamas it is electric blue, green, and turquoise.”

Blossom also wrestled with an old nemesis. It takes him longer than many landscape artists to acclimate to a new environment. “I’m envious of the guys who can sit down and paint wherever they happen to be and get the feel of the place,” he says. At first he didn’t know what to paint, but gradually he found that he was drawn to intimate views—detailed palm fronds instead of sweeping vistas.

In May 1999, the Blossom family began to work their way back to the New England coast, eventually to embark in Maine for the summer months. They returned to their Connecticut home in late August. Blossom chose 25 of his best paintings from the 50 he’d completed and deposited them at one of his galleries. The gallery promptly sold all of them.

While he can cite individual paintings from his trip as favorites, it is the collective experience of being on the water for a year that he has found most worthwhile in recharging his creativity. “The value is in the subconscious absorption of everything about the water. I paint water intuitively. I don’t analyze it much. Everything I paint comes from the experience of watching the water—how boats move through it and how the wind reacts to the surface of the water. That’s what I transfer to the canvas.”

These days his ideas come easier. They may be sparked by a particular cloud formation reminiscent of a Bahaman moment. His paintings have more vitality too, he says. Also, since he has returned, he now tends to depict more intimate views of ships and boats as in Among the Rolling Breakers. The painting was one of first completed after his return home.

The painting is larger, 30 by 40 inches, which he thinks is in response to painting 50 small canvases in a row. While he is still fond of details, his style is looser. “I think my painting career has gone in steps and plateaus. I advance and reach a spot and climb upward, and this is followed by long periods of consolidation and frustration,” he says. “You are always searching for a new way, a different point of view, something to keep painting exciting.”

Someday he would like to take another extended sailing trip. Currently he is comfortable taking smaller excursions. In February he plans to travel to California to paint Yosemite National Park with a group of landscape artists. “In the future I’ll be content just to continue to grow, get out of my studio and paint outdoors more, and find excitement in painting,” he says.

Photos courtesy the artist and Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Pitzer’s of Carmel, Carmel, CA; and J. Russell Jinishian Gallery, Fairfield, CT.

Featured in December 2000