The making of a ‘Sterkenburg’
By Ton van der Werf
During the ten years that Peter Sterkenburg and I were friends, I had the opportunity of taking a look behind the scenes. Following in the first instance the example of his famous 17th Century predecessors, his special technique was based on applying many layers of paint. Although he produced a number of pen and ink drawings, he used oil colours almost exclusively. The artist would sometimes apply as many as twenty-five extremely thin layers, giving the painting its realistic effect, as if the radiance of the sun penetrated the waves and the clouds. And as a finishing touch, he accentuated the lights with a fine brush to suggest more depth.
Despite the realism of his paintings, Peter Sterkenburg was not considered to be a genuine ‘fijnschilder’, a painter of ‘delicate subjects’. Unlike those, he had a preference for linen of a rather coarse texture. It was amazing how he was capable of painting the rigging of his ships so meticulously on this comparatively rough surface. Although it was an essential part of the painting, he preferred to save up this donkey work for late nights. The ‘rigging’ brush he used for this purpose, made of sable hair, only allowed him to apply 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 fluent.
He didn’t mind being disturbed by his faithful cat Josephine who was in the habit of jumping onto his lap while he was at work. He was extremely fond of the animal and would sometimes jokingly remark that, after his death, the authenticity of his paintings could be determined by the cat’s hair that can be found on nearly every painting.
Peter was a typical night owl, having no affinity with those early birds that usually catch all the worms. His studio was equipped with artificial daylight lamps so he could work whenever he wanted. In answer to a journalist’s question whether a certain painting was done at daybreak or at sundown, he replied that he only painted sunsets, since dawn was too early for him. Prior to the actual painting, he was in the habit of preparing himself thoroughly. Paintings with historical vessels and backgrounds especially required a lot of research. In order to paint as true to life as possible, he frequently consulted his extensive collection of books on historical and maritime matters. Furthermore, he possessed a photographic memory, enabling him to depict a certain ship twice without much effort.
He did a number of paintings featuring the paddle steamer ‘Hercules’, a twin-funnelled tug he was particularly fond of. Yet no two paintings were alike. Although he was occasionally obliged to paint small scenes in serial production at the beginning of his career – simply because he needed the money – in later life he stuck to the principle that each patron was entitled to a unique painting. Peter had been interested in technical matters from an early age and had taken a fancy to steamships. That is probably why he painted such a large number of steam tugs. The demand for paintings from the preceding era was so great, however, that the majority of his work was devoted to sailing ships. Between 1986 and 1992, more than thirty percent of his complete oeuvre consisted of pictures of traditional Dutch sailing ships, such as the ‘bom’ and the ‘tjalk’. After his success in the Far East, his subjects became more varied.
When the moment came to start work on a new painting, he first made a little sketch on a piece of paper, as if looking down from a helicopter. On this sketch he drew his own position from where he looked at the ships and the background. The sun’s altitude and the direction of the wind were also indicated. He then positioned his ships in such a way that they would come out well on the canvas. He would often make an additional sketch as seen from the water, to ensure that the composition would be right in one go. The result was then transferred onto the canvas with a few outlines in charcoal.
Peter used to work with a fixed number of colours, such as burnt umber and sienna, red, yellow and orange cadmium, green earth, dark ultramarine and Prussian blue. It is interesting to see how his later work is enriched with more light, no doubt due to the influence of his visits to the Far East, where the radiation of the sun is much brighter that in our regions. Of all the places he visited, whether it was Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Singapore, Guangzhou or Sydney, his favourite harbour by far was Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, which had really captured his heart and which formed the setting for many of his later paintings.
The artist was a perfectionist. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, everything he painted was true to life; maritime experts and experienced seamen have confirmed this over and over again. And in that single case he permitted himself the liberty of adjusting the background or the position of a ship in favour of the composition. He also took photographs to capture details of contemporary ships and their environments so that, in combination with the sketches he made on location, he could afterwards integrate these in his paintings back in his studio.
It took Peter Sterkenburg many years to improve and perfect his technique. This is apparent from paintings originating from his ‘brown’ period in which famous predecessors, such as Jan van Goyen and Ludolph Backhuysen must have served as an example for him. Later, he was greatly influenced by the British marine painter Montague Dawson, whose brush technique was somewhat coarser than Peter’s. During those twenty-six years in which Peter was professionally occupied with painting, he managed to develop a technique, which was both unique and clearly recognisable. From a collection of seascapes, you pick out the ‘Sterkenburgs’ unerringly. As with Dawson, it is the way he handles his brush, giving you the impression that everything is worked out in detail. Until you look at it more closely. The faces of the members of the crew are mere spots, a few strokes with a dry brush conjure up the fine-meshed fishing net of a ‘bomschuit’ and his fluffy clouds are done with a few coarse strokes. Peter’s paintings are also easily identifiable by his trademark: his skies and his waves.
When he visited us in Kuala Lumpur, he would sometimes stare at the clouds for hours on end, much to the despair of our Chinese housekeeper who thought our weird guest was doing nothing all day long. With some difficulty we convinced her that he was seeking inspiration for his paintings. Once, when he was on his way home after playing billiards at his local inn at Zurich one night, he slipped and fell on his back. The star-spangled sky he then saw ultimately resulted in a magnificent moonlight painting that was later sold in Australia. Afterwards he claimed that the sky had impressed him to such an extent that he had remained lying on the pavement for some time. Luckily, nobody was around; it would undoubtedly have caused some commotion in the village.
Peter has taught us to look at things in a different way. Like anyone else, my wife and I used to look at the sky, just to see what the weather was like. Nowadays we also look upwards, and the beautiful skies we can sometimes admire, remind us of a very special friendship. We call such a sky a ‘Sterkenburg-sky’ as a tribute to an artist who, with his fabulous brush technique, could make his ships, waves and clouds come alive.
We are interested in your responses and shall, as far as possible, answer your questions with the exception of appraisals. We are also looking for Sterkenburg-paintings which are not included in the book ’Bound to the sea’. Please send us via email a digital photo, preferably taken outside (without flashlight), and a specification of the dimensions of the canvas/panel without the frame. And if possible, please also indicate the year that the artist made your painting or when you acquired it. You can reach us by email by clicking on the email envelope
The Peter J. Sterkenburg Maritime Paintings Foundation aims to bring the work of the Frisian artist to the attention of a large audience. Much worth knowing about the painter can be found in the biography ’Bound to the Sea’ and on this website. What is still missing is mainly data about the start of his career. Jan Wietze Ludema, responsible for the Media within the board, is therefore constantly looking for newspaper clippings and reviews related to Sterkenburg's work. You can find what is known to date on our website, under ’News’. Ludema is grateful to everyone who can help fill in missing data. You can reach Jan Wietze Ludema by email by clicking on the email envelope
‘t Witte Huuske (The Little White House)
The Frisian artist Peter Sterkenburg also painted city scenes at the beginning of his career (his so-called Brown Period). He found a beautiful characteristic house on the island of Terschelling (1976) at Westerburen nr 1 in Midsland. ‘t Witte Huuske was originally a residential house and has wall anchors mentioning the year 1620. On September 7, 1965 it was registered as a national monument. Since 1987, the popular restaurant ‘t Witte Huuske has been located here. More information about the painter can be found in the biography 'Bound to the sea, Peter J. Sterkenburg, painter of seascapes’.
Trends: Mixing Old Masters and Antique Artworks into a Modern Scheme - Antiques and period paintings are dusting off their fusty image. With the right contemporary setting, a carefully executed contrast between old and new can bring out the beauty of traditional masterpieces all over again.
Old never looked so fresh. ArtRevisited is a printing company which offers a number of colour prints of Peter Sterkenburg’s paintings. These are printed by a special printing process (Giclée) and are of exceptional quality. You can find this company on www.artrevisited.com
The Frisian artist Peter Sterkenburg also painted city scenes at the beginning of his career (called his Brown Period). The house built in 1634 at Froonacker 16 in the Frisian city of Franeker is a good example of this (above right). Peter Sterkenburg painted this painting in 1976. On the right of the photo is the former storehouse Poolshof, which dates from 1765.