Peter Walking on the Water

Traditional and Contemporary versions.
Oil on Masonite, 24×36, 2014

Peter Walking on the Water - Modern VersionThis is an experiment. Not only are these my most complex paintings to date, they also represent a departure from my usual painting approach.

Process: The Making Of

Several years ago as I was studying the story of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21) I saw in my mind a clear view of the events.

Immediately I made several sketches of the scene using a ball-point pen on standard sketchbook paper, my usual sketching tools. (Note: I prefer pen because it doesn’t smear like pencil does and doesn’t bleed onto the backside of the paper as deeply as markers. Sketches from years ago look as fresh as when I made them.)

Peter Walking on the Water - Early Sketches
Early Sketches. Here I used closeups to emphasize the drama of these powerful events.

Peter Walking on the Water - Later Sketch
Later Sketch. In this scene I decided to stretch my skills and do a group scene emphasizing the drama among the apostles.

The problem was, I couldn’t get the right references for either the boat or its passengers. I tried making wooden models, using Internet reference, 3D software and lots of sketches but couldn’t capture the realism I needed to make the image believable.

Then in May 2010 my wife and I went on a weekend trip to Wilmington, Delaware. The afternoon weather was excellent and I had my camera with me. On a whim — or perhaps being guided — we drove along a suburban waterfront and came upon a deserted marina. The gate was open but no one was around. Right in the middle of the yard was the perfect boat, just the right size and at the perfect angle for the story.

I pulled out my camera and knocked on every door in the place, calling loudly. No one was home. Eventually I pulled my car up to the right angle, opened the door, gave my wife my camera, had her stand on the doorstep and told her where to point — “Don’t move, just shoot!” I said. I got into the most nautical attire I could find (yes, we weren’t prepared; I just used what I had) and spent an hour assuming over 200 poses all over the boat, inside and out, trying to imagine how a disciple in a tossing boat at night would react after seeing what he thought was a ghost and watching his leader voluntarily jump into very deep water.

All Poses
Two hundred and twenty seven “mini-me’s”. Click here to see an animation of all the poses. It will open in a new window.

Back home I analyzed and composited everything into one shot, printed it out, adhered the print to a piece of Masonite and began painting.

I invented the lighting, faces, coloration and costumes and used several pieces of found reference for the water. I re-shot the Peter figure to get good reference for the billowing robe.

Peter Walking on the Water - Traditional Version
Traditional Version, final.

Audience Reaction

As I was showing the final piece to a gathering of youth I displayed one of the reference shots, shown here:

Peter Walking - Basic Composite
Early composite reference.

I got gasps from the audience. I was confused — they liked the reference as much as the traditional painting. One adult modern art critic in the audience told me that the composite was the “money shot”; it was a great way of letting the audience put themselves into the scene.

So I agreed to paint it as well. Here’s the result:

Peter Walking on the Water - Modern Version
Modern Version, final

Click the image below to see an animation of the final poses. It will open in a new window.
Final Poses, Still Image
The final poses, more-or-less.