Working To A Theme – Lynn’s Fisher Fleet

For the past eighteen years I have been painting and drawing on Fisher Fleet, a little-known part of Lynn’s vast docks complex. Strangely, many Lynn locals are totally unaware of the Fleet’s existence! 
I was first told of its whereabouts some 40 odd years ago by an artist friend who lived in Leicester!
It’s the creek where all the local fishermen moor their boats and an absolute heaven of endless images for the artist.
Colour, pattern and unusual shapes wherever you look; all ever-changing due to tides and weather. It’s also a graveyard for several old wooden fishing vessels which are left on the inner banks to rot away slowly.

While working there just before lockdown I was confronted by an officious person informing me that “I was trespassing and getting in the way of the local fishermen and their activities”. This was nonsense as I always tucked myself away in a quiet corner of the quayside, well away from any activity, and never found any problem with the odd fisherman working on his boat. In fact, they were always very friendly and interested in my work. This led me to approaching the port administrator, who kindly gave me a permit, allowing me to work on the dockside.

One of the major differences between the amateur artist and a professional is that the pro will ‘work to a theme’ and find endless inspiration from what many would consider a simple, mundane subject, approaching it from many different aspects to get the most out of it visually. One only has to look at the 80+ self-portraits by Rembrandt, or Cezanne’s obsession with one mountain to understand how the ‘theme principle’ works in practice where each image becomes a part of the whole. It’s telling a story in images.

Drawing is the surest way to familiarise yourself with your subject before even touching a brush and colour.  Yes, use a camera, but a drawing will give you so much more selective information. A working sketch/drawing can become an essential part of the whole project. An artist’s visual thoughts / drawings can often be far more interesting than their finished work? Look no further than the wonderful de Vinci drawings.

I discussed this some two years ago in Update after a conversation I’d had with royal portrait artist, and avid drawer, Brian Organ.
SEE. DRAW. UNDERSTAND. CREATE is the way I have always worked and used in my teaching and is basically the theory advocated by John Ruskin in his brilliant book ‘The elements of drawing’. 1856/1857. Published by Dover publications in paperback, 1971.

Tackling a complex subject such as the Fleet environment, or in fact any busy harbour scene takes considerable thought and application to make it work convincingly.
Drawing and painting boats in all their aspects soon sort out ones observing and drawing skills. You have to know boats and how they function, as each one has its own personality. I well recall my early days, sitting and painting in Wells harbour when Jack Cox, the local fisherman and renowned artist, unbeknown to me  was looking over my shoulder and said “that bugger wouldn’t float Mike“!!!!!
I can still feel his presence every time I am depicting a boat!

With the Fleet I was faced with just about every aspect and challenge, such as painting  water convincingly, perspective, weather, light, the ever changing tides, buildings, figures, etc. In the latter case, why do I see paintings of Wells harbour, endless empty beaches and Lynn’s iconic Custom House with not a human figure in sight?
Even in the early hours of the morning you will no doubt see the odd fisherman, jogger, dog walker, someone going to work That figure will immediately add human interest to any picture, not to mention scale.

Why not give your figures age and character? There is a tendency to use them as mere props and not treat them as individuals. The brilliant Victorian artist William Powell Frith was a master of this with his crowd scenes in such paintings as his ‘Derby Day’ and ‘The Railway Station’.  If the odd figure is included, why do they always wear red coats? 

Fishermen work very strange hours based on the tides and weather.
Usually, the Fleet is deserted at low tide and at its best pictorially with the boats lying at rhythmic angles on the exposed mud banks, not to mention the fascinating industrial shapes of the buildings which enclose the inner Fleet.

Many years ago I happened to meet an elderly lady on the Fleet who informed me that she well recalled going out into the Wash with her grandfather who owned the Queen Alexandra, LN141, the wreck of which is seen in the foreground of the panoramic view of the whole dock. She remembered the mast being replaced in an emergency by a telegraph pole and a quarter of the stern being cut away as it was rotting away!
She still visits ‘The Queen’ along with her childhood memories.

Such things take me way beyond the mere process of painting a picture and are all a part of the infinite pleasures and struggles of being an artist. My studio and sketch books are full of such fond memories and is why I paint.

Michael Smith