Friday, February 5, 2010

Color Palettes: John Stobart (b. 1929)

Over the past sixty years, John Stobart has used his interest in sailing ships and painting en plein air to build a gallery of work which has resonated with collectors worldwide. Through hard work, talent, and innovation, Stobart was able to achieve a career for himself during an age when realistic paintings were not in vogue, by pursuing his loves wholeheartedly and without compromising on the quality he knew he could deliver. Now, after a half-century of success, Stobart hopes to give back to today's young life-painters by providing aid and education to these students who, he laments, did not receive the quality and type of art education he obtained during his school years.

Stobart was born December 29, 1929 in the city of Leicester, England. He was the second son of a self-made businessmen who ran a successful five-story emporium in Derby called Boots the Chemists, but his mother, sadly, had died during his childbirth. With his father busy building and expanding his business, the rearing of John and his brother was left to their maternal grandmother and a series of housekeepers. It was these housekeepers and his grandmother who encouraged the young boy when he showed an early aptitude for art.

Stobart's performance in primary and secondary school was dismal, resulting in his failure of all grades in high school. During those years, Stobart spent his time in the back of his classrooms drawing rather than learning the lessons his teachers were trying to impart. His father, still hoping his son might become a productive member of society, used his none-too-considerable influence in Derby to get John enrolled in the local College of Arts and Crafts after he had completed his regular course of studies at age sixteen. Much to everyone's surprise, including his own, Stobart excelled in this new arena.

Training in Derby's College of Art in 1946 was very Academic, and in the best sense of the word. Stobart and his fellow four students in his class spent the first two years of study continually practicing their drawing skills. They began by rendering shapes, then moved onto objects like chairs and tables. Later they moved onto drawing the human skeleton and learning anatomy, before venturing into working from plaster casts. During these first two years they were also required to travel about the city executing drawings of Derby's many periods of architectural history, from Roman to the then present day. The final two years of training were spent working extensively from the live model. His hard work and talent garnered for Stobart high honors upon graduation from Derby, and one of four available slots at London's prestigious Royal Academy Schools.

It was not long into his studies at the Royal Academy that Stobart realized that his program in London was going to be a mere repeat of his studies in Derby. Although he understood the value of such practice, he also knew that figure work was not going to be the means by which he would establish a lucrative career. With the tacit approval of Henry Rushbury, then Keeper at the Royal Academy and a nationally acknowledged watercolorist of Italianate cityscapes, Stobart began making forays into the local countryside to paint directly from nature.

Stobart's interest in working en plein air was greatly fueled by the paintings he saw during two particular museum visits early in his lessons at the RA. The first, in 1951, was perhaps the most influential upon on Stobart's career- it was that year in which he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington in order to see their collection of John Constable's painted field studies. Though Stobart had been familiar with Constable's more famous gallery paintings such as The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral (which, in his youth, he thought were old-fashioned and dated¹), he was unprepared for the emotional reaction he would have upon seeing Constable's outdoor sketch work. Said Stobart, "The sight of Constable's work was... a total revelation to me. The vivacity of his work, born of the spontaneity of working quickly to capture an effect of light, reveals quite clearly how his paintings were done, brushstroke by brushstroke. They show how it can be done."² The encounter with Constable's outdoor work left Stobart inspired and motivated to find the same simplicity and clarity in his own work.³

The second museum exhibition which had a strong impact on Stobart took place in 1952 in the Royal Academy's own Burlington House. The finest examples of French landscape painting, spanning several centuries, were gathered from all over the world for this exhibition. In one room, which featured works by the Barbizon School, Stobart was particularly struck by a painting entitled View of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Corot's ability to represent light overwhelmed the young Stobart, and helped to define the artistic style for which he was searching.

Shortly after graduating from the Royal Academy in 1957 (Stobart's four-year study was interrupted by mandatory military service), Stobart embarked on a sea voyage to visit his father who had moved to South Africa after purchasing a pharmacy there in 1950. While traveling from port to port along the African coast, Stobart came up with an idea: he decided to make studies of each of his twelve stops, and, incorporating his knowledge and love of sailing vessels, add in newly launched and yet-to-be-built ships to his compositions. His first painting was of the cargo-passenger ship he was then aboard, the Braemer Castle, which he quickly sold to the Union Castle Line, owners of the ship. Within two years, his original paintings of exotic ports were decorating the board rooms of more than fifteen shipping companies in London.

For the next ten years, Stobart divided his time between England, where he had an established group of collectors, and Canada, where he focussed his attentions on collectors interested in the sailing companies along the St. Lawrence River. While meeting the needs of his clients on both sides of the Atlantic, Stobart came to the realization that there was a vast untapped market in the United States, where few artists had previously represented America's nineteenth century ports and harbors. After a six month sabbatical, during which Stobart intensively studied his new subject, he began work on his American maritime paintings, for which he is now best known.

With four paintings wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string, Stobart headed to New York City by train in 1965 to look for gallery representation. By chance, he sat next to a prominent art editor, Donald Holden of American Artist magazine, who politely, if reservedly, agreed to look at the artist's black and white portfolio. Upon seeing the quality of Stobart's work, however, Holden was completely absorbed, and recommended that the artist take his work to four specific, leading galleries in the City. At his first stop, Kennedy Galleries, the owner, Rudi Wunderlich, offered Stobart a one-man show on the spot. Over the next fifteen years, Wunderlich gave Stobart seven solo shows, all of which were nearly complete sell-outs.

With the popularity of his paintings of America's "Age of Sail" increasing, Stobart decided to offer limited edition prints of his more important works for sale in addition to his originals. In 1976 he founded Maritime Heritage Prints, Inc. so that he might be in complete control of the quality of these reproductions.⁴ Since 1988, Stobart has used profits from his company to help fund the Stobart Foundation, which offers fellowships to young artists who excel at painting from life. So far, nearly one hundred $5000 fellowships have been given to recently-graduated art students who need help making the next step to becoming professional painters.

Now in his eighties, Stobart continues painting scenes of America's halcyon sailing days, as well as making time for his first love, plein air painting. It is his hope that from the success he achieved in recreating America's sailing history, that he will be able to leave a legacy for future artists through his Foundation, which he continues to bolster for the sake of America's artistic posterity.

A retrospective exhibit of John Stobart's sixty-year painting career is currently on view at the Esther B. O'Keefe Gallery at the Society of the Four Arts, in Palm Beach, Florida. The exhibit, entitled The Grandeur of America's Age of Sail, features over sixty paintings created between 1949 and 2009. The exhibit is on view in Florida through February 28, after which it moves to The Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio where it will be on view from March 28 through June 13.


John Stobart's color palette has changed very little since his student days, when a teacher advised him that a restricted palette would help ensure a color harmony throughout his work.⁵ His colors are as follows:

  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Winsor Red
  • French Ultramarine
  • Permanent Green
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Titanium White
Previously, Stobart used Flake white, but grew dissatisfied with that pigment's lack of covering strength, so he switched to titanium white. He also removed black from his palette, choosing to mix his own from burnt sienna and French ultramarine instead.


In the early 1990s, Stobart filmed the creation of 23 plein air paintings which became the basis for his Worldscape television series airing on PBS. Each week, he would travel to a new location and paint an outdoor sketch, giving advice and commentary while the camera rolled.

His companion book to the first 13 paintings, The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors with John Stobart, seems a bit out-dated now, but was really ahead of its time when it was published. Stobart was far in front of the current resurgence in plein air interest, and I would not be surprised if some of his suggestions influenced the manufacturers who now cater to the plein air crowd. Still, there are some interesting sections of the book which are timeless, and the book can still be found, used, for reasonable prices.


Stobart's DVDs and books are available from Maritime Heritage Prints, Inc., including the new catalog which accompanies the current retrospective of his work.


To learn more about the Stobart Foundation please visit their website at


¹John Stobart, The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors with John Stobart, (North Light Books, Cincinnati, OH, 1993), p. 5.

²Stobart, p. 6.

³The Stobart Foundation. February 3, 2010. {}.

⁴Stobart. February 3, 2010. {}

⁵Stobart, p. 18.


lisagloria said...

Fantastic post, thanks so much for putting this together!

Frank P. Ordaz said...

awesome post....

dorian said...

wow - incredible work! Thanks Matthew!

'sharpyoungbull' said...

some of the paintings of England now seem a little postcard-esque, but once he gets to the New World, he really conveys a sense of presence and wonder within that era.