North of the Door County Maritime Museum, the giants of the Great Lakes wait out winter’s hold. The sheer magnitude of the ships is awe-inspiring for anyone, maritime enthusiast or not. For Illinois oil painter Lee Radtke, seeing those ships last winter on a cold, February evening at sunset proved an “almost religious experience.”
He carried that memory with him into his Lake Zurich, Ill. art studio and during the past year, has interpreted the experience into a 20-piece collection of oil paintings now on display at the Door County Maritime Museum.
Radtke’s impressionistic paintings expertly capture the energy of Sturgeon Bay’s shipbuilding yards. The enormity of these water vessels is balanced, and emphasized, with a smattering of Bay Shipbuilding employees donning hard hats and blue work shirts in the foreground. In what has become Radtke’s signature maritime style, the scenes are bathed in a warm glow. Most are named after the ships in them.
Two of the paintings at the Door County Maritime Museum are award winning, having been accepted into the 2017 American Impressionist Society’s 18th Annual National Juried Exhibition and the 2017 Oil Painters of America Eastern Regional Exhibition of Traditional Oils.
In anticipation of Radtke’s local show, I spoke with him about plein air and studio painting, his shift from cityscapes to maritime work, and successfully composing a work of art. To see more of Radtke’s work, visit radtkeart.com.
Alyssa Skiba (AS): Tell us about your approach to painting.
Lee Radtke (LR): I work, what we call, alla prima, which is all at once, and a lot of my paintings are direct. I don’t draw with a pencil, I usually just paint directly to the panel, and I don’t paint on canvas very often. My main medium is oil on panel and that’s what I feel most comfortable in, and I don’t work very large.
AS: You first got into fine art after joining the Plein Air Painters of Chicago. How did that group influence your approach to oil painting?
LR: It taught me to work quickly because as you know, light changes and things change so much, you have to work quickly. This carried over in my studio paintings – when I work from photographs, I tend to work quickly and again, alla prima is a term that they use for doing it all at one time. That’s somewhat of a misnomer because all of my paintings are tweaked when I get back to the studio. It’s rare that I’m completely satisfied with what I do in the field but be that as it may, it’s the way I work and you tend to evolve as you go.
AS: How has your work evolved during the past 15 years?
LR: My paintings have gotten more impressionistic. They are what you call representational art which means it represents something, it’s not abstract, and impressionist is another term for what I call leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination when they look at a painting. I like to give them that opportunity.
AS: What inspired your shift from cityscapes to maritime painting?
LR: I was just so overwhelmed with the size, the magnitude of these ships, these huge hulls. It was just inspiring to me. It was almost like a religious experience. I always put people in my paintings so the viewer gets a sense of the scale of these things because they’re a thousand feet long and 80 feet wide…It was just an inspiration to me and it was really an awakening for me. In the past, I did a lot of cityscapes, I do Chicago, and this is sort of a natural transition from doing buildings to ships. I’ll always have cars and people in my cityscapes and I had the same opportunity here because there’s cars parked right out there, trucks, and workers working around, so it was a natural transition for me.
AS: At first glance, your paintings hold a great deal of detail. How do you achieve that?
LR: If you really look closely, it’s done with a dry brush, when you look at the derricks and things like that. I don’t paint each little member of the structure, I just indicate it with a dry brush.
AS: What are the most important elements of painting?
LR: Composition is so critical in a painting and contrast, having contrast between sky and shapes. I just did a painting yesterday that departs from the hulls of these ships and it’s more of a side profile but there’s a big derrick in it and there’s guy-wires and there’s a bridge and there’s lots of things going on that I think it makes it interesting for the viewer to look at that. I don’t spend a lot of time on the paintings but I think about them a lot. Before I start I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. It doesn’t always come out that way but that’s what my goals are.
AS: What do you hope to evoke in viewers of your work?
LR: My goal is always to try to create an emotion. When somebody looks at my painting, I want them to say, ‘Wow. That’s a powerful painting.’ I want to get some reaction and it’s an impressionistic painting so I want the viewer to use his imagination. Every viewer might look at it differently.
The Door County Maritime Museum, 120 N. Madison Ave. in Sturgeon Bay, is open 10 am – 4 pm daily. For more information visit DCMM.org or call 920.743.5958.