Sterkenburg employed a so-called ‘wet’ painter technique whereby he did not wait for the paint to fully dry. He would first sketch the outlines of a painting in charcoal. He sometimes applied as many as twenty-five thin layers, giving the painting a realistic effect. As a finishing touch, he accentuated the light with a rigger brush to suggest more depth. Despite the realism of his paintings, Sterkenburg was not considered to be a genuine fine painter . He had a preference for linen of a rather coarse texture. He was capable of painting the rigging of his ships meticulously on this comparatively rough surface. The ‘rigging’ brush he used for this purpose, made of sable hair, allowed him to apply only a small quantity of paint each time – resulting in short strokes joined together – but this technique cannot be detected in the final result, in which the lines seem to be continuous. This gives the spectator the impression that everything is worked out in detail.
When the time had come to start painting, he first made a sketch on paper as if he were looking down from a helicopter. On that sketch he drew his own position from which he looked at the ships and the background. Wind direction and position of the sun at a certain time of the day were also indicated. He then placed his ships in such a way that they would look best on the canvas. Often he also made a sketch from the water, so that the composition would be right the first time. The drawing was then drawn on the linen with a few lines using charcoal.
Below are some sketches and the finished paintings.
The Australian pilot steamer Captain Cook II was based at Sydney Harbour in Australia. The vessel measured 396 tons and was 46.5 meters (155 feet) long. She was built at Mort’s dock, Sydney Harbour, completed on 16 December 1891 and replaced the Captain Cook I in 1893. Originally her bridge was positioned behind the smokestack, which must have been a very unhealthy place to work with all the smoke when stoking started. In 1902 the bridge was brought forward. These pilot vessels were also used for seagoing search and rescue, and many stories are told of brave feats of seamanship performed by their crews. On one occasion in 1907, Captain Cook II sailed as far as Lord Howe Island to rescue a shipwrecked crew and bring them back to Sydney. The records show that the last vessel for which the Captain Cook II provided a pilot service was the Mariposa, which entered Sydney on 20th March 1939, the same day that the Captain Cook III began service. Captain Cook II then served as a training vessel until 1949 when she was towed to sea and scuttled. She is seen on this painting approaching one of Captain Erikson’s windjammers entering Sydney Harbour in strong winds. North and South Head, the cliffs in the background, form the bluff between the harbour and South Reef. The year is 1925.
On the 6th of July 1990, during a roaring north-wester, the tug-boat Wotan is on her way from Bremerhaven to Algiers with an almost 70 meter long dry-dock in tow. Off the Dutch island of Terschelling, the tug loses her load and in an attempt to make fast again, the ship runs into the dock and starts taking water. The captain sends out an S.O.S.. The Johannes Frederik, a fast ‘all weather RIB-life-boat’ turns out and manages to reach the dry-dock. The four men on board however indicate that there is no risk. In a worst case scenario the dock will run aground on the shallows. Guided by the Coast Guard the Johannes Frederik continues her voyage across breakers of some 6 meters high and shortly afterwards the crew, to their horror, notice a large tug standing almost straight up in the water. The stern is stuck on the bottom of the sea and the ships lists more than 45 degrees. The 16-hands strong crew clings to the bow. Due to gale-force winds the ‘Lynx’ helicopter Pedro 2 of the Royal Netherlands Navy, which has meanwhile arrived, cannot get a ‘sling’ on board and the life-boat cannot get close enough to the tug. There is no alternative but to jump. All sixteen crew members leap overboard and are saved from the tossing waves by the life-boat and the chopper. An instant later the Wotan sinks to the bottom of the sea.