Trial and Error – The Process of David Witbeck

“I guess there’s something to be said for making sure the drawing is just right before applying paint,” shares artist David Witbeck. “My brain doesn’t seem to work that way. I tend to find the painting through trial and error on the canvas.”

First Sketch Final Piece

In this particular work, Witbeck lends his frustration with the subject being so young. Before this, he hadn’t ever attempted to paint a child. 

“it’s too easy to slip into the realm of the saccharine, and partly due to the way I take liberties with human anatomy, I don’t want the child to look awkward or strange,” shares Witbeck. “I hope I can navigate that narrow path with this one.”

The idea for the girl with the lighthouse was inspired by a Facebook friend of Witbeck’s who grew up in the ‘40s as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper.

“That’s a childhood I would have loved…I think,” he says.


Quickly drawing the basics with charcoal and washing in some tones at the beginning of a painting is the fun part for Witbeck. Then comes the hard work of making sure the made-up perspective isn’t too wacky and tweaking the drawing, and of course, and painting.

“I spent all day spinning my wheels with a deepening sinking feeling on this one,” a frustrated Witbeck shares. “Then, when I was just about ready to give up and go home, I figured out what it needed. It might turn out okay after all.”

Someone once said something to the effect that “a work of art is never finished, it’s just abandoned at some point.” Even though Witbeck thought a painting was done one day, he can wake up and realize something was all askew. 

“For this piece, the lantern was askew. This necessitated repainting most of the sky,” says Witbeck. “It’s exhausting making stuff up, especially something this literal. I am looking forward to getting back into my comfort zone tomorrow.”


“This was to be a reinterpretation of a painting I made six years ago. It is one of the only ones that is heavily informed by a photograph,” shares Witbeck.

 “The photo below was of Bernard Raynes, and the 58-foot wooden dragger named Irene Alton Raynes built it in his backyard and launched it in 1976. I had met Bernard in 1989 and spent a few days on the Irene Alton in the Gulf of Maine one January doing a personal photography project. Bernard no longer fished due to declining health but owned the boat, and it was fished with a hired crew. The trip was cut short when the seas got too rough to keep the gear on the bottom. We returned to Owls Head with few fish and few photos.”

Years later, Witbeck and his wife, Barbara, rented a house overlooking Owls Head Harbor from  Bernard and Eleanor. They did that for fifteen summer vacations. The photo that inspired this painting was taken when Witbeck accompanied Bernard to the boat to do some maintenance.

“On clear days when Bernard wasn’t getting dialysis, we’d explore nooks and crannies of Penobscot Bay with him in our various small boats. From Port Clyde to Brimstone, Isle au Haut and Stonington, from Eagle Island and Camden to everything in between. Great memories.”

This image has greater personal connections than most for Witbeck. And that may have caused a few more trials and a few more errors. 

Recently, Witbeck used Bernard’s image to inspire another new piece, but it didn’t go smoothly.

“After three days (see sketch above), I realized I wasn’t having any fun. I was too hung up on the architecture of the skiff, the details of the big boat, and I even started to turn my generic fish shapes into cod!” Witbeck laughs. “I was getting way too careful and literal with everything.”

For Witbeck, the only solution was the razor blade treatment. “I knew if I didn’t destroy it, it would haunt me, and I’d keep trying to fix it. Sometimes it’s better to start over from scratch.” (see below)

“Everything is just the right amount out of whack this time around,” he explains. “I replaced the fish with lobsters. Lobsters are funnier than fish. Now I just need to name it. ‘Day’s End’ or ‘Lobster for Supper’… I hate naming paintings.”

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