Excerpt: 'The Great Sperm Whale' by Richard Ellis


The whale painter at work. I am about to start painting in the teeth.

The Adventures of a Whale Painter

During a vacation in the Virgin Islands, I became intrigued with an old queen conch shell that I found on the beach. It was encrusted with coral growths and grit, but I decided to clean it, so I sat for hours, chipping away at it with a penknife. Finally I had cleaned it up, and for no particular reason (except that I had expended so much time on it), I decided to pack it in my suitcase and take it home. My wife and I lived in a New York apartment, and really didn’t need a doorstop, and we didn’t have a mantel (because we certainly didn’t have a fireplace), so I just put it on my desk. I picked it up and moved it around. I liked the way it looked. When I like the way something looks, whether it’s a porpoise, a panther, or a peregrine, I draw it, so I made some sketches of that big old shell. Then I decided to paint its portrait. I knew hardly anything about shells, but I was hooked on them. I learned that there were shell dealers in New York, so I visited them to buy particularly interesting-looking specimens. I bought shell books and subscribed to shell magazines. I would set up the shells on my desk, light them carefully, then paint pictures of them. What was I going to do with these shell portraits? I had no idea.

There was a shell dealer named Elsie Malone in Sanibel, Florida, and I was ordering exotic shells from her. For the most part, I was interested in the especially gaudy and heavily-ornamented murexes, which were (to me, anyway) beautifully decorated with swooping spines and branches, not unlike the antlers of deer. In fact, some of them were known as deer-horn murexes, latinized to Cervicornis. I painted a lot of these, and also assorted shells of the genus Strombus, which included my old friend Strombus gigas, the queen conch. Of course the original shell was bleached and faded, but recent queen conchs have that showy, almost obscene, pink lip. Elsie wrote and told me that a friend of hers named Clarice Fox was opening an art gallery on Sanibel, and asked if I would like to have Clarice look at my paintings. Sanibel Island, is of course, the shell-collecting capital of America, so a gallery willing to exhibit my paintings was a natural. I sent a couple of slides to Clarice, and before I knew it, I was scheduled for a one-man show at the Schoolhouse Gallery. I had never done this sort of thing before, but I had the paintings framed, wrote up a catalog, and shipped me and the paintings to Florida.

The queen conch (Strombus gigas) the first shell I painted in my short-lived shell-painting career

The show was a great success, and much to my surprise, every painting and drawing was sold. I had become a successful artist first time out of the gate. Did that lead to a long and prosperous career as a shell-painter? Not exactly. In fact, soon after my gallery success, I resigned from the shell-painting business. You see, shells are made by living gastropods (snails), and are not some waste product that they discard. Except for shells that you find washed up on the beach (such as those at Sanibel), the animal has to be killed to get the shell. There is a huge industry devoted to harvesting shells, which are often obtained by chemically poisoning reefs or actually blowing them up to kill the animals. Did you really think that those baskets and baskets of similar shells in souvenir shops were collected by beachcombers? I realized that in some small way, my glorification of shells could only encourage the dynamiters, so I wrote an article in 1975 for Audubon magazine that I called “Why I Became an Ex-Shell Painter,” in which I explained my decision to quit.

During my shell-painting period, I had become involved with a fledgling conservation organization known as RARE, for “Rare Animal Relief Effort.” It was the brainchild of David Hill, who wanted to raise money for the short-range rescue of species in danger, because they felt that the larger organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, while ultimately helpful, took too long to swing into action. At this time, there was a groundswell of concern for the whales that were being slaughtered all over the world, and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it.

Working with bottlenose dolphins at America’s first oceanarium in St. Augustine, Florida, in the late 1940s, curator F.G. Wood noticed the variety of sounds they made, and speculated as to whether they might be able to echolocate. Ken Norris, then at Marineland of the Pacific, observed that dolphins could easily locate objects blindfolded, but not if their lower jaws were covered, demonstrating that these amazing mammals relied almost entirely on sound. The controversial John Lilly began his research on dolphins in 1955, trying to understand what they were “saying,” leading to the 1969 film “Day of the Dolphin,” in which the dolphins actually talk. It was researchers Roger and Katy Payne who first listened to the haunting songs of the humpback whale (and produced the record in 1967), that crystallized “whale consciousness,” and raised the painful question, “who gave the whalers permission to kill these sensitive, intelligent, echolocating, leaping, smiling, singing creatures?” At about this time, Scott McVay wrote two popular articles, “The Last of the Great Whales” (in Scientific American) and “Can Leviathan Endure So Wide a Chase?” (in Natural History), which brought the question before people who had not thought about a whale since they (reluctantly) read Moby-Dick in high school.

Patti Forkan of the Humane Society of the U.S. during the filming of a documentary about the New Bedford murals. (The twisted harpoons have not been added to Moby Dick.)

At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 there was an unanimous call for a ten‑year moratorium on all whaling, which call was studiously ignored by the International Whaling Commission. By this time, however, the movement had gained so much momentum that numerous conservation organizations were devoting more and more time and energy to the business of whale preservation. Curiously, there is no organization actually named “Save The Whale,” although there are many, such as the American Cetacean Society, which are devoted solely to whales. Other organizations, such as the Humane Society of the U.S., the National Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation, devoted much time and energy to the problems of whales. There is something about cetaceans; a uniqueness that has elevated them far above other mammals. They may be super‑ intelligent (or they may not be; we only know that they have very large brains), but they are masters of an environment that we can only enter as jealous, clumsy aliens. Whales have captured the emotions of millions in a manner unprecedented in the history of man and wild animals. It is not surprising that so many people were so deeply offended by the arrogance of the International Whaling Commission signatories in deciding how many of these very special creatures will be turned into pet food and fertilizer every year. I was asked to join the board of RARE specifically to address the issues of whale conservation.

Although most people think that they heyday of whaling was the time of the square-rigged whalers out of Nantucket and New Bedford in the mid-19th century, with somebody shouting “thar she bloooows” from the crosstrees and brave lads harpooning fierce whales from a whaleboat, it was the 1960s that saw the most massive slaughter of sperm whales in history. In the North Pacific, an area virtually unknown to Yankee whalers, Japanese and Soviet sperm whalers were taking some 25,000 whales every year – as contrasted with the New England fishery, where it has been estimated that no more than 30,000 whales were ever taken by the entire fleet. Our first whale-saving exercise consisted of a couple of RARE members (I remember David Hill, his wife Marty, a lawyer named Ken Berlin and the bird-painter Guy Tudor, but I’m sure there were others) taking to the streets of New York with petitions that we asked people to sign, so that we could present the signatures to the Japanese and Soviet embassies to show them how much America disapproved of their whale-killing policies. We stood on streetcorners in front of Fifth Avenue department stores, shouting, “Save the Whales! Boycott Japanese and Russian goods!” (It made little difference that there were hardly any Soviet goods to boycott; we wanted the makers of Nikons, Panasonics, and Hondas to know that the world disapproved of their whale-killing.) We did manage to collect thousands of signatures, and we did present them to the respective embassies, and while we may have raised the consciousness of many people on the streets, I’m not sure that the petitions got past the clerks we handed them to, who assured us that they would be put in the hands of the ambassadors. I thought that there must be a way to spread the message more effectively.

Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov wearing a t-shirt decorated with blue whales drawn by Richard Ellis in 1974, the year Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union.

David, a long-time birder, was friendly with Les Line, the editor of Audubon, and suggested that we might submit an article to Line’s magazine on the subject of the plight of the great whales. David would write it, and I would provide the illustrations. (At that time, my whale-painting experience consisted mostly of painting the little portraits for the Encyclopedia Britannica, one of which was printed upside-down, but that’s a story for another time.) There were few guidelines for a whale-painter, and even fewer references. Commercial whaling had been practiced by various peoples for more than 1,000 years, and reached its zenith in the 20th century, but few photographers had recorded the enterprise, and when they did, it was usually to photograph dead or chopped-up whales. I wanted to paint them swimming in their natural habitat, to show that they were not “products” or “harvestable resources,” but living, breathing animals. How could you engender support for endangered animals if people didn’t know what they looked like? This meant searching the literature for drawings of the various whales so I could get an idea of their size and shape, and then (figuratively) reassembling them, lifting them off the flensing deck, and putting them back in the water. Once again, I began in the AMNH library, but I soon learned that there were people who were studying various whales at sea, and while they might not have underwater photographs, they surely knew more than I did about what the whales looked like.

In the chapter entitled “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” Melville wrote: “I shall ere long paint to you as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the eye of the whaleman when in his own absolute body the whale is moored alongside the whale-ship so that he can be fairly stepped upon there. It may be worth while, therefore, previously to advert to those curious imaginary portraits of him which even down to the present day confidently challenge the faith of the landsman. It is time to set the world right in this matter, by proving such pictures of the whale all wrong.” He then catalogs ancient illustrations, recent books and engravings, and even drawings of the sperm whale’s skeleton (“…his skeleton gives very little idea of his shape.”), and concludes that it is not possible to paint a whale:

Melville was unfamiliar with Jacques Cousteau, underwater cameras, snorkels, scuba equipment, and other devices that would enable humans to get a look at whales in a way completely unavailable to the old whalers who could only see whales in the distance or moored alongside a ship as they were being butchered. I could avail myself of resources Melville never dreamed of.

There were ten species of “great” whales that I wanted to paint: The rorquals (from the Norwegian word for “grooved whale”) consisting of the blue, fin, sei, Bryde’s and minke; the closely-related bowhead and right whale; the humpback, gray, and sperm whale. It seemed that every species of great whale had its champion, as with Melville and the sperm whale in Moby-Dick. (By the way, Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for the 1930 Random House version of Moby-Dick were surprisingly good, and I consulted them often, but how could he possibly have portrayed a right whale so accurately?) Because of a (probably incorrect and politically-motivated) Japanese identification of a “pygmy” species of blue whale in the mid-‘60s, there were many articles about the larger and smaller versions, often well-illustrated. Fin whales were fairly common off the very coast I lived on, and they were occasionally photographed by sailors. Sei and Bryde’s whales, not native to New England waters, often washed ashore in other parts of the world, and amateur photographers sometimes took pictures of the stranded leviathans. (In 1972 Canadian author Farley Mowat had written A Whale for the Killing, the heartbreaking story of a fin whale trapped in a bay in Newfoundland that was shot repeatedly by local “sportsmen” until she died. In 1981, when they made of movie of Mowat’s novel, because there was no underwater footage of fin whales, they substituted Hawaiian humpbacks, so you see a whale begin its dive in the cold, gray waters of Newfoundland, but by the time it submerges, it’s in the aquamarine waters of Hawaii.) It would not be until 1977 that photographer Jim Hudnall would swim with the humpbacks of Maui, producing the first underwater pictures of whales in the wild, so when I was starting the paintings, there were no humpback photographs available either.

I had seen minke whales in Newfoundland, but only at a distance, and then only the dorsal fin and part of the arcbhing back. Right whales were no longer common anywhere, since they, along with humpbacks, were usually the first whales killed when the whalers arrived at a particular spot, because they both breed in inshore, protected waters, perfect for whaling. Bowheads, the object of a concentrated Dutch and British fishery in the 17th and 18th centuries in the eastern Arctic, lived in areas so remote and inhospitable that they would not be photographed underwater until 1998, so any hope of getting an image of living bowhead was as likely as getting an underwater photograph of the Loch Ness Monster. The California gray whale, as befits its name, migrates every year along the west coast of North America, so there we lots of pictures of their barnacled backs, but little to give an indication of what the whole animal looked like. Which leaves the obvious whale, the one every kid draws, a square-headed creature – like the one in Disney’s Pinocchio – with a water fountain spouting out of its head. The sperm whale was the object of the fabled Yankee “fishery,” the eponymous protagonist of Melville’s 1851 novel, and like the great white shark, the occasional star of Hollywood movies.

I worked on the sketches and paintings for six months. I still wasn’t sure about the whales, because I’d never actually seen one, except in the movies of Moby-Dick and the distant view of a minke’s dorsal fin in Newfoundland. (This was long before those National Geographic and Nature television programs.) I knew it would be better to have them critiqued before publication rather than after, so I decided to submit the paintings to the scrutiny of a person who knew as much about whales as anyone in America. I packed the paintings in my car, and drove to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where Bill Schevill held court. Schevill, born in 1906 (he died in 1994), was a bioacoustician, and with his wife Barbara Lawrence, had been among the first to record the sounds of whales. He had recorded sperm whales, and more important, he had actually seen them. Affiliated with Harvard at the time, he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, so it was with some trepidation that I brought my paintings to him. I was afraid that he’d take one look at them and tell me that I should have stuck to painting seashells. Schevill, who was born in Brooklyn, had acquired the mannerisms of a crusty old Yankee sea-captain, right down to an Ahab-like beard, and to my enormous relief, when I showed him the ten paintings, he approved. (He did point out that he had never seen a humpback “so gaily spangled,” which was because I had gotten somewhat carried away with the reflections of light on the whales’ backs.) With his approval, I felt confident in turning in the paintings to Audubon, and with David Hill’s text, “Vanishing Giants” ran in the January 1975 issue. My sperm whale, not so gaily spangled, was used as the cover illustration, the first painting to appear on the cover of Audubon in 30 years.

The response to the Audubon article was amazing. All extra copies in the press run were sold out almost immediately, and in an editorial, the New York Times wrote that “this issue should help, through its text, to illuminate the role of these extraordinary creatures and, through its illustrations, to arouse concern for their fate.” In 1975-76, the ten paintings were exhibited at the Newark Museum, South Street Seaport, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mystic Seaport, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the American Museum of Natural History. (Normally, the AMNH has a policy of not exhibiting the work of living artists, but they made an exception in this case because of the relevance of the subject matter.) A man from Quadrangle Press called us to ask if we would like to turn “Vanishing Giants” into a book. It was very flattering, and David and I would love to have made a book out of the magazine article, but the 10,000 words that he had written and the ten paintings that I had done was all we had. A 10,000-word book would have been about 50 pages long, even if it was bulked up with color plates. We countered with an offer to do a field guide to the marine mammals of the world (whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea otters, etc.) and he agreed. David would write the text, and I would do the illustrations.

Part of the one-man show of the paintings for “Vanishing Giants,” at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, 1976

There were a few marine mammals – mostly seals and sea lions – that had been extensively photographed, but by and large, there wasn’t much in the way of pictorial reference material on say, Burmeister’s porpoise or Shepherd’s beaked whale. I headed back to my favorite library, and spent almost a year researching the appearance of the various whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions. There was no single source; I had to look up reference material for every one of the 100-odd species, hope that there was a drawing or a photograph to work from, make notes and sketches in the library, and then paint a portrait of the creature that I hoped would be accurate and definitive. During the process, I was constantly in touch with David, whose day-job was airline pilot, and who lived in New Jersey. He assured me that his research was going well, and as the deadline approached, we prepared for the delivery of the manuscript and drawings. When the fateful day arrived, I packed up the paintings and headed for the meeting at Quadrangle.

Present were various editors, art directors, me and David, and our agent. I plopped the drawings on a table (they were all painted on 11×14 illustration boards), and unwrapped them so everybody could see what a spectacled porpoise or a Ross seal looked like. Then everybody turned to David to have a look at the manuscript. “Um,” he said. “There is no manuscript.” A stunned silence fell over the room. How could there be a book with just drawings and no manuscript?  What could be done? In a uttdrly recklesss demonstration of overconfidence, I said that because I had spent the past year in the library, I was totally familiar with the literature, and that I would write the book. Everybody seemed greatly relieved, and the meeting adjourned with David agreeing to give me that portion of the advance that he had received to write the book. When they asked, I told them that my experience with the whale and dolphin literature would enable to write the book in a year and a half. I packed up my drawings, and planned another 18 months in the library of the AMNH.

I was wrong in my estimate by 18 months. It took the better part of three years, and when I finally emerged from the library, white as the belly of a fish from living in artificial light for so long, I had written 250,000 words on the cetaceans of the world. (The seals and sea lions were earmarked for another book which never got written.) The manuscript and drawings were re-submitted to Quadrangle, and we waited. And waited. Seems like the folks at Quadrangle had expected to publish a field guide to the marine mammals of the world (well, the cetaceans, anyway), and they couldn’t figure out how to do that with the mass of material I had submitted. I guess they envisioned a “field guide” as being something you could put in the pocket of your anorak, take it aboard your sailboat, and identify what kind of whale belonged to that dorsal fin, kind of like the Petersen bird guides. But with 250,000 words, a dozen large color paintings (many from the 1975 Audubon article), 76 illustrations, and innumerable drawings, the resulting book would have been the size of a small phone book. Another complication not foreseen when I agreed to write the book was that I thought I could just write the “natural history” of a given animal by covering size, food, distribution, gestation, and so on, but I soon realized that whaling and politics played an integral part on the natural history of many of the whale species, for some of them had been hunted to the brink of extinction, and whatever else it may be, incipient extinction is certainly a part of the “natural history” of an animal species.

Quadrangle finally gave up. They couldn’t figure out how to make a book out of the material I had submitted, but that didn’t mean I had to give the money back. I had, after all, given them what they asked for – it was just a little larger and more complex. So we (that is me and my agent) now had a huge pile of material, and no one to publish it. For their 10%, agents are supposed to be able to solve problems like this, and he said he would submit the whole kit and kaboodle to Ash Green, an editor at Knopf. Editors rarely see a finished manuscript and all the illustrations when they are considering a book project, but that’s what happened this time, and Ash agreed to publish it. “Only one problem,” he said, “too big. Can’t we figure out a way to break this into two volumes?” “Of course,” I said, “we can put all the “great” whales and the beaked whales into one volume, and all the dolphins and porpoises in the other.” I was now to be the author of a two-volume work, which struck me as very sophisticated and literary.

I set out to divide the work into the two sections, but it was a lot more complicated than I thought it would be, because there were a lot of places where the cross-references that were made from whales to dolphins would work in a single volume, but not in separate volumes, and also, in the time that I was revising it, much new material on whales and dolphins was published. For example, I had originally written that very little was known about the Chinese river dolphin, but as I was revising, Western scientists in conjunction with resident Chinese cetologists were publishing new material on the ecology of this heretofore poorly-known animal.(*) Also, this was a period of great turmoil in the International Whaling Commission, to which I had been named a delegate in 1980, so I was calling in bulletins daily. (Eventually Ash told me that he was an editor at a publishing house, not at a newspaper, and I had to cease these hysterical “stop the presses” calls.) The Book of Whales was published in 1980, and Dolphins and Porpoises in 1982.

All those one-man museum shows were enormously gratifying, but even the world’s foremost (and only) whale painter has to eat, and in 1976,  I had a one-man show at a Manhattan gallery called Sportsman’s Edge, where the paintings were for sale. I had been storing the shark paintings in a closet, and I brought them out for this show, along with the well-traveled whale paintings. Without planning it, I had become a painter who specialized in large marine critters. It was the height of the “save the whale” movement, and by this time, the novel and movie of Jaws were at the top of their respective best-seller lists, so it was a pretty good time to be painting whales and sharks. I sold most of the paintings in the show, and I even got a couple of commissions. One came from Richard Wehle in Buffalo, who owned a prosperous electric company, and who, because of his name, collected whale and whaling memorabilia. His company, Wehle Electric, had just opened a new office building, and he wanted to put a private museum in it, to display his scrimshaw, harpoons, logbooks, and so on. He asked me if I would paint a mural for him.

My first sperm whale mural, installed in Richard Wehle’s musuem in Buffalo, New York. 1978

I went to Buffalo to look at the space – the mural was to be 20 feet long by 6 feet high – and to discuss the details of painting it. Dick Wehle wanted me to paint it in place, but the thought of spending six weeks (or however long it would take) in Buffalo was too much for me. We decided that sperm whales would be the subject, and I returned to New York to try to figure out how and where to paint a 20-foot mural. (This would not be the last time I would face this problem; later I would have to figure out how and where to paint a 100-foot-long mural.) The living room in my apartment was just over 18 feet long, so with a minor rearrangement of the furniture (which, for some reason, my wife did not regard as “minor”), I was able to tack up an 20×6 foot canvas. (She didn’t much like the tacks, either.) First I painted in the background, I then drew the whales on brown paper, cut them out with a scissors, and moving them around until I arrived at a composition I liked, I taped them into place. Then I traced them in chalk on the canvas, and began to fill in the whales. It took about six weeks, and my decision to do it at home was vindicated by what happened in Buffalo. That was the year of the monster blizzard, where Buffalo had snow piled as high as 18 feet, people lost their cars, and freight trains were sent to cart the snow to other places, because Buffalo had no room for all of it. (When Dick Wehle died in 1990, the contents of his museum were auctioned off, and the mural was bought by Mystic Seaport.)

Originally an 18th-century Pilgrim settlement, New Bedford quickly grew to a position of prominence in the whaling business. It supported such industries as shipbuilding and the processing and sale of whale oil, but also the requisite support industries, such as shipfitting, ropemaking, barrel-making (coopers), and the farmers and greengrocers that provisioned the hundreds of whaleships that sailed for and returned to New Bedford. In 1848 New Bedford resident Lewis Temple invented the toggle harpoon, a device that revolutionized the whaling industry. By 1850, New Bedford – population 22,000 – was the richest per capita city in America. California’s 1851 gold rush attracted many young men (and often older ones, too) who forsook the low pay, long hours (sometimes years), inedible food, strict discipline, and dangerous quarry that defined life aboard a whaleship. The economy depended almost exclusively on the oil of the sperm whale, but when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the demand for whale oil dropped.. New Bedford was able to remain prosperous because of its textile industry, which by 1881, had grown large enough to sustain the city’s economy. The creation of the New Bedford Textile School in 1895 ushered in an era of textile prosperity that began to decline in the great depression and ended with the end of the textile period in the 1940s. At its height, more than 30,000 people were employed by the 32 cotton-manufacturing companies that owned the textile factories of New Bedford (which were worth one hundred million dollars in total). By 1960, New Bedford’s population had risen to over 100,000, and the only business left was fishing. Then New Bedford’s commercial fishing community was devastated by government restrictions on the catch of  halibut, redfish, and – until recovery plans can work – haddock and yellowtail flounder. Although New Bedford is still listed among the top fishing ports in the United States (Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians on the Bering Sea, is first), the fishery is now in decline, and the city’s economy, like the economy of almost every American city, is in a tailspin.

Preliminary sketches for the New Bedford murals. Each one was 6 by 24 inches.

The Old Dartmouth Historical Society was founded in 1903 to create and foster an interest in the history of the territory included in Old Dartmouth; promote historical research; and collect documents and artifacts and provide for their proper custody. The Society established the Whaling Museum in 1907 to tell the story of American whaling and to describe the role New Bedford played as the whaling capital of the world in the nineteenth century. In 1916, the largest ship model in the world was built in a special building at the museum, a half-sized model of the New Bedford whaleship Lagoda. The actual ship was 108 feet long, so the model is 54 feet 9 inches on the waterline. (From the tip of the flying jib-boom to the tip of the spanker boom, however, the model is 82.5 feet long.) Today, the Museum is the largest museum in America devoted to the history of the American whaling industry and its greatest port.

By the time I moved to Little Compton, Rhode Island – a half hour from New Bedford – in 1974, I was already involved in the politics of whale conservation, and I had completed the whale paintings for Audubon magazine. I spent a lot of time in and around the Whaling Museum. It was a pleasant surprise – but not a little intimidating – ­when I was asked to paint a 100‑foot mural for the “Lagoda Room” of the Museum. A hundred feet! A third the length of a football field! The room takes its name from the model of the whaleship Lagoda that put to sea out of New Bedford for the first time in 1841. The room in which the Lagoda sits is 155 feet long, 54 feet wide, and high enough for a fully‑rigged – albeit half‑sized – whaleship. What better compliment to a half‑sized whaleship than half‑sized whales? (“Half‑sized” always sounds a little diminutive to me, but since the whales I was going to paint can reach a length of 60 feet, the largest whale in the painting – Moby Dick himself – was going to be 30 feet long).

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is an old building, with brick exterior walls faced with plaster within, and because of the dampness of the New England maritime atmosphere, there was no possibility of actually painting the mural on the interior wall. I then began to research the myriad al­ternatives. I could paint it on canvas. Or on boards. Or on some sort of canvas‑covered panels. It could be hung like a giant picture, or applied directly to the wall. I even investigated the possibility of having a small painting of mine reproduced by a computer‑generated painting process, but the museum rejected this high‑tech solution. (Thirteen years later, when the process had been perfected, I did use this “high-tech” solution to produce another mural for New Bedford.) After months of research, consultation and experimentation, I concluded that the old way was best (with some modern modifications, as will be seen), and I decided to paint the mural on canvas. In the museum, the space available for the mural was 100 feet long by 13 feet high, but the 100‑foot long wall is broken in the middle by a doorway, so I only had to resolve the problem of painting two 50’ by 13’ murals.

First I made two 24” sketches of the different kinds of whales that had traditionally been hunted out of New Bedford. One half of the mural was going to show right whales, humpbacks and gray whales, and the other was going to depict the primary object of the Yankee whale fishery, the mighty sperm whale. This seemed a little too ambiguous, since New Bedford is best known for its sperm whale industry, so I revised the sketches to include only sperm whales, and then, in what I regard as an almost divine inspiration, I added the most famous whale in the world, the one whale that everyone knows, the White Whale, Moby Dick. In the novel, Captain Ahab’s ship Pequod actually departs from New Bedford, so the transition from fact to fiction was not particularly troublesome. The white whale was a product of Herman Melville’s imagination, but there have been albino sperm whales taken, so I felt that I could add this most infamous of cetaceans without compromising the authenticity of the painting. Moreover, the thought of painting a giant portrait of Moby Dick seemed to be the most exciting prospect in my two‑decade career as a painter of whales.

When the museum had approved my suggestions and sketches, I returned to New York to work out the details. There were several problems. I didn’t know what to paint the mural on (all I knew was that it would be done on canvas and then installed in the museum); I didn’t know what to paint it with, and I didn’t know where to paint it. Of course, I could have done it in situ in New Bedford, but I had a sort of business to run –  not to mention a family to maintain – and however long this project was going to take (I originally estimated three months, but I was short by a full month), I couldn’t afford to be away from New York for that amount of time. My own studio was not nearly large enough for a project of this magnitude, so I had to find a proper space. Luckily, a film cameraman with whom I had worked in the past lived in a loft in the Tribeca area of lower Manhattan, and he agreed to allow me to rent some space in his loft, which measured approximately 100’ by 36’, and most importantly, had 13‑foot ceilings.

Now I had a place to paint in, but nothing to paint on. I located an organization in Brooklyn that manufactured stretchers, and they agreed to meet with me to discuss my problems. I met with the president of the company, and we decided (although it was much more his decision than mine; I was a complete novice at this business), to build eight 12’ by 12’ stretchers, bring them to the loft along with the canvas, and build the panels there. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about canvas in this size either, since I usually work on “normal‑sized” canvases, perhaps 30” by 40.” I had to locate a source for the linen canvas in widths that would allow for the construction of a 12’ by 12’ panel, no easy task, even in New York.

Each of the eight stretchers had to be built in two halves, because the stairway to the loft was much too small to permit a 12’ high object to be carried up. Even then, when they finally arrived with the 6’ by 12’ sections, they had to remove the end pieces because they couldn’t turn the corner to get the sections through the door. For the next ten days or so, I learned more than I thought there was to know about stretchers. I watched the crew assemble these beautifully‑crafted examples of the joiner’s art, and then stretch 144 square feet of canvas on each one. These stretchers (which, when un‑canvassed and horizontal, looked more like the components of a barn‑raising than anything to do with painting), were furnished with expansion bolts, so they could be minutely adjusted when the canvas was stapled in place, to insure a tight, smooth surface. When the eight canvases were finally stretched, I was on my own. I was facing 1,152 square feet of raw Belgian linen, and I now had to transform this vast expanse of beige blankness into a mural.

First, of course, the canvases had to be primed. I used acrylic primer (which I bought in 5‑liter buckets), and painted each canvas by hand with a five‑inch brush, in order to work the primer well into the canvas. At this stage, I was working on the top half of the canvas from an industrial scaffold, that I rented from a commercial ladder and scaffold company. When the component parts of this scaffold were delivered – a “sidewalk delivery,” by the way, where they dropped all the pieces off in front of the loft, and I had to carry all the platforms, crosspieces and 20-pound wheels up three flights of stairs – I then had to assemble it. Since I had never even seen one of these things before, it was like constructing a particularly complicated kid’s toy on Christmas Day, without instructions, and with some of the pieces being ten‑foot sections of iron pipe.

I could only work on two canvases at any given time, because this was, after all, my friend’s house, and he had to live there while I clattered around with my stretchers, staple guns, and scaffolding. I therefore developed a sort of an “assembly‑line” technique, where I could work on one canvas (I always worked from left to right), then remove the completed left‑hand canvas, slide the right‑hand one into its place, and begin to work on a new right-­hand one. (A stretched twelve-foot square canvas is too large for one person to move, so I always had to enlist somebody’s help when the time came to change canvasses.) After the primer had dried, I had to sand it down to remove all the rough threads, lumps and bumps that linen canvas is heir to. Of all the myriad aspects of this project, the sanding was probably the most physically demanding. It didn’t help that I had to do a lot of this work in an un‑air‑conditioned space while the outside temperatures in New York were in the high nineties, either. (On the other hand, I can recommend sanding and scaffold-climbing as a sure-fire weight-loss program. In the four months that it took me to paint this mural, I lost 30 pounds.) The smoothed canvases (and the surrounding floors) were then vacuumed to remove the pervasive primer dust, and then I began the actual painting.

The first order of business was to paint the background color. It is a sort of tropical turquoise, and I put it on with a roller. Compared to the hand‑painting of the thick primer into the canvas or the sanding process, this was a piece of cake. Now that I had beautiful, flat, blue canvases, I had to figure out how to get the whales drawn onto them so I could paint them. I vaguely remembered something about drawing a grid and then enlarging the sketch, but while I could easily draw a grid on my 6” by 24” sketches, I had no idea how to draw a grid on a 12-foot-square canvas. So I said the hell with it, and holding the sketch in front of me, I simply drew the whales (in sections) onto the canvas with or­dinary blackboard chalk. When the whale – or half of it – was sketched in to my satisfaction, I began to paint it. Have I mentioned that I was working in latex house paints? I ordinarily work in water colors or acrylics, but neither of these seemed appropriate. I selected several shades of blue from the paint store (I used Pratt & Lambert “Vapex” flat wall paints throughout), and in what the Army used to call OJT – “On the Job Training – I learned how to paint with this unusual medium. At first, I thought I would be able to blend the colors on the canvas the way one does with oils or acrylics, but because latex house paints dry even faster than acrylics – not to mention the problems of working “wet” on a painting that is twelve feet long – I had to come up with another solution. I developed a unique “palette,” com­prised of plastic Dannon yogurt cups (the 32 oz. size for the larger amounts of paint; the 16 oz. size for the smaller amounts), with the tops painted the color of the paint within. I mixed many variations of the blues (and then the whites and beiges for Moby Dick), and then I painted in a sort of updated “pointilist” manner, shading the colors from dark to light, and adding the scars and scratches of squid suckers on the faces of the adult whales. The babies, which are too young to engage in battle with their lunches, are unscarred.

Moby Dick in place at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. At a length of 100 feet, the mural was too large to photograph in its entirety, and besides, there was whaleship in the way.

It took me four months of 12‑hour days to complete the murals. (I quit for the day only when my legs gave out from standing or scaling the scaffold). When the painting was completed, each of the eight canvases was removed from its stretcher, and rolled carefully on a 12‑foot, 16” diameter heavy‑gauge cardboard tube. (Each of the tubes cost $137.50). Unfortunately, the 12-foot long tubes wouldn’t round the turn to get them down the stairs, so we were stuck with eight giant tubes that we couldn’t get out of the loft. We  lowered the tubes out the window, and got them down three stories by using a specially constructed scaffold. We assembled the exterior scaffold without benefit of building permit, and the police closed us down when they saw we were conducting an illegal and dangerous activity. I told them we would take it down immediately, and as soon as they left, we continued lowering the rolled canvases, loaded them in the truck, and escaped. The whole business (including the artist and his yogurt cup collection) was then trucked up to New Bedford, and the entire process was reversed. A total of 1,521 square feet of canvas was re‑stretched on the re-­assembled stretchers, which were then tuned and tightened by the use of the expansion bolts in the back of each one. Special support rails had been constructed on the walls of the Lagoda Room, so that the canvases could be hung.

Almost two and half years after the project was initiated, the Moby Dick Murals were installed. At the installation, aside from seeing this “leviathan” of a painting hung on the wall, another, totally unexpected benefit occurred: I was able to see the entire painting for the first time.

(*) I incorporated that new material into Dolphins and Porpoises in 1982, but the story of the Chinese river dolphin has taken a terrible turn, and as of 2007 – roughly three years before I wrote this note – Lipotes vexillifer has been declared extinct, the first cetacean species to be eliminated in recent times.

About the Author:

Richard Ellis is one of America’s leading marine conservationists, and is generally recognized as the foremost painter of marine natural history subjects in the world. His paintings of whales have appeared in Audubon, National Wildlife, Australian Geographic, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and numerous other national and interna­tional publications.