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Rosenthal exhibit brings Katmai coast to Ketchikan
Artist David Rosenthal installs a series of his oil paintings, which depict a sunrise upon scenery from the coastline that borders the Katmai National Park, on Feb. 28 at the Main Street Gallery. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

David Rosenthal’s luminous paintings of the Katmai National Park and Reserve have filled the Main Street Gallery with the lush blues of the park’s coast.

Rosenthal’s exhibit, “Art and Science on the Katmai Coast,” features paintings inspired by his 2015 Artist in Residence experience, as he traveled along the coast on an 80-foot boat with 10 scientists, researchers and volunteers who were studying the near-shore ecosystem of the area.

The exhibit also has been shown in Homer’s Pratt Museum; at the Cordova Historical Museum in Rosenthal’s hometown of Cordova; Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage; and The Bear Gallery in Fairbanks.

Rosenthal specializes in creating paintings based on his explorations of wilderness areas, blending his fascination with science and his expertise in art.

His central fascination is with ice.

“In a 10-year period, I was down in Antarctica for 62 months,” Rosenthal said, standing among his paintings at the Main Street Gallery with his partner Sharon Ermold. “I worked for the Antarctic program and I was the National Science Foundation artist in Antarctica three times — for two winters and one summer down there.”

He said he enjoyed painting the blues and subtle light in that area, and, even in the summer, greens were only seen in the emerald waters.

Rosenthal said he was chosen for the Katmai residency by a buyer of one of his Antarctic paintings, who had moved to a position in the Katmai park after serving as a superintendent in the Denali National Park and Preserve.

During his residency, he helped the scientists with data recording and sample collection. He made his pencil and watercolor studies in between those projects, sometimes on the boat and sometimes on the shore.

His Main Street Gallery show includes panels with information that was gleaned from the Katmai expedition. The panels address the “six vital signs” that the scientists chose to study: seagrass and kelp, marine invertebrates, marine birds, black oystercatchers, sea otters, and marine water chemistry and water quality.

His Katmai Coast show, he said, is a bit wild for him, with its show of greens here and there.

He looked at Ermold and asked, “All this green — is green unusual for me?” and Ermold smiled and nodded.

“Usually nothing I have has green in it,” he said, answering his own question.

He said he has tubes of red paint and yellow paint that he still hasn’t used up in 40 years.

“They call you the blue man, or the ice man,” Ermold said, laughing.

He explained that summer in Katmai park is “just as lush as Hawaii.”

“Up until this show,” Rosenthal said, “you probably could count the summer paintings on one hand.”

Rosenthal also has worked in and created artwork from the Greenland Coast, the Greenland Icecap, Norway, New Hampshire and many locations in Alaska. He said that he often has taken jobs, such as those in Antarctica and Greenland, as a way to access areas he never could otherwise.

He also has worked as an artist in residence at Alaska schools all over the state, which allowed him to indulge his love of teaching as well as to explore new landscapes. He also has taken a job on a charter boat at times, in Prince William Sound, which allowed him to create paintings of that area.

His interest in science has drawn him to work with scientists in many far-flung locations, as well as has allowed him to expand his landscape art.

Rosenthal became interested in science when he was young. He entered the physics program at the University of Maine Farmington, and then became enthralled with painting landscapes. He ended up earning a BA in art and science.

He first arrived in Southeast Alaska 35 years ago to work on in a fishing tender, and he also worked several years at a Cordova cannery, he said. He learned that painting landscapes in Alaska was a bit different than in Maine. He said that in Maine, he could mix and match scenery bits from memory to create his own compositions. When painting in Alaska, he realized that the landscape features were very distinctive.

“I realized that Mount Eccles in Cordova is Mount Eccles. I can’t just remember it.” he said. “It’s like doing a portrait.”

He said that was when he began to use a different approach.

“That’s when I started to draw things first,” he said. “The longer I started to draw things, the more I saw how different the world really is than the way we think it is.”

He further deepened his knowledge about how to structure a painting’s color array when he read a 1977 Scientific American article titled “The Retinex Theory of Color Vision,” by Edwin Land.

Land combined the words “retina” and cerebral “cortex” to label his theory, which addresses the process by which humans perceive color.

Rosenthal said, referring to the theory, that human brains, as they move through the world, will look for the brightest red, then compare all the other colors to it.

“If you’re working on a painting and you want a bright red, you have to paint the rest of the painting to make that red bright,” he said. “Just taking bright red and putting it on a canvas isn’t bright.

“We create the colors in our mind. That means you have to paint the whole scene to get what color you want. If you work on one part of the painting, you’re working on the whole painting at the same time,” he explained.

In the watercolor class he taught on the afternoon of March 2, he shared that approach with the approximately dozen students gathered in the Main Street Gallery.

He used two of his own paintings for students to use as models and guided them through making value sketches both in pencil and in watercolor. He urged them to use their colors in ways that would cause the glowing light areas to pop out, and to consider the relations between the dark and light areas to create space, which is critical to landscape painting.

In the gallery, preparing for the opening of his show, Rosenthal explained that he never actually liked using watercolor paints in his earlier years. As he began traveling to paint in severe climates and in cramped spaces, he realized that he could very efficiently carry watercolor paints in containers that would fit in his pockets, and the watercolors could withstand more extreme conditions than oil paints could.

He now uses his watercolor studies on all of his field expeditions, then creates his larger, finished oil works based on those studies when he returns to his Cordova studio. He said he usually works on 30 or 40 paintings simultaneously.

Rosenthal said that in his early years of painting, people would question his realistic painting approach, asking, “What are you doing that for? You could just photograph it.”

Now, he has an answer for that, he said.

“The main thing has been that I hope people understand about painting, is that paintings are the way humans see the world, you know, and realistic paintings like these are more real than photographs,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t mean they’re better than photographs.”

He described the difference between a photograph of Denali, as an example, and a painting he’s made of the same mountain.

“I paint it as I see it, and I exaggerate the relief. Not because I’m trying to exaggerate it, but that’s the way we see it,” he said. “We do that.”

He further explained how a painting is more real, in his opinion, than a photograph.

“You’re looking at it as a human and as an individual, uniquely,” he said. “It’s filtered through your experiences, and it’s filtered through just your whole perceptual system.”

He added that, unlike a camera, a human eye can look into the shadows and look into the light at once.

“I can paint a sunset and have it be bright, saturated colors and you can see details, and it’s not just a silhouette,” Rosenthal explained.

“Your fine vision is like a telescope. You think everything’s in focus, but it isn’t. It’s just that your eye can flick to it immediately and see in focus,” he continued. “But, everything isn’t in focus. Your mind stitches together these little telescopic views into this feeling that we have peripheral vision.”

He said his reason for making his paintings is to share with people what he saw, what he experienced.

“It’s not so much about art, or being art, it’s about my love of nature. I’m sharing it with people through my work,” he said.

He pointed out that he never interrupts the scene he has created for viewers even with his signature on the painting.

“I do everything I can to remove myself from the paintings. I want people to see what I saw. I don’t stylize, I don’t try to create a style that would be identifiable,” he said. “The end result is that it’s more identifiable.”

“I think of everything in the world from the point of view of a scientist, and creating these little worlds based on reality,” Rosenthal said. “I have started a new show called ‘Painting at the End of the Ice Age,’ and it’s art and science once again, but it’s based on the receding ice.”

He said that he has had views of the retreating ice as long as he’s been in Cordova, which sits right in the center of all this “remnant of the ice age,” and he’s watched the glaciers retreating up the mountains.

“It’s natural for me to do a show that’s art and science,” he said.