Ran Ortner’s work consists of paintings of the ocean on canvases that are as much as eight feet tall and thirty-two feet wide. They show no land, sky, boats, figures, or other reference points, merely what Herman Melville calls “this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” Viewers commonly experience strong emotions standing before his canvases. Some feel as though the paintings are not about the oceans at all, but are instead tapestries of our human condition.
Ortner was born in 1959 on the coast near San Francisco. When he was five, his family moved to rural Alaska, where they lived in a remote log cabin. His father was an itinerant preacher who believed in living outside society. He regularly removed his children from school for three to four months at a time when the family traveled to South America, flying in their single-engine Cessna. It was in Ecuador that Ortner first surfed. At eighteen he set out on his own to race motorcycles and work as a motorcycle mechanic. At the age of twenty he had an accident that marked the end of his racing career and the beginning of his career as a full-time artist. “My mom painted,” he says. “I saw painting as slightly less dangerous than motorcycle racing.” In 1990 he moved to New York City, where he still lives.
Because of its subject matter, Ortner’s work is sometimes compared to that of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose land- and seascapes were intended to humble the viewer, put human accomplishments into perspective, and reawaken our appreciation for the natural world. Ortner’s materials don’t differ much from Friedrich’s — or from Rembrandt’s, for that matter. Rather than use the titanium white paint commonly sold today, Ortner insists on using old-fashioned lead white, because of its superior translucence. He mixes it himself, using oxidized lead and walnut oil that he’s cooked on low heat for three days. (“You know, lead’s a potent neurotoxin,” I said as he whipped some up in front of me. “Yeah, don’t eat it,” he responded.) His other colors — grays, blues, and greens but also vermilions and umbers — are derived the old-fashioned way too, from minerals combined with oils of linseed, poppy seed, or walnut. Primarily he relies on complex shades of gray. Read More Here