Painting a Reef – Step by Step

Have you ever looked at a painting and thought ‘How did the artist do that?’ Quite often people approach me and share similar comments when talking about my paintings. My generic response is typically ‘It takes a lot of time and attention to detail’ or ‘All you need is just a little patience’ (this is where I start humming like Axl Rose). But what I really want to say is ‘It all starts with a sketch…’

Step 1. The Sketch.

As I was saying, it all starts with a sketch. Most paintings start with a simple sketch on paper or on the canvas. The biggest goal for the sketch is composition and the placement of the subjects. You want to stay away from too much shading when sketching as it will tend to smudge with your paints. Try sketching with a graphite pencil or charcoal to get solid and very visible results. Once the sketch is complete, I suggest that you spray the canvas lightly with a varnish to keep the pencil or charcoal from smudging and mixing with your paints.



Step 2: Underpainting

Underpainting is a helpful technique to deploy when you want to create a great deal of depth in your colors. Try selecting a dark base color but avoid using black as it tends to be too dark for this purpose.


Step 3: Base Colors

Paint from the background to foreground. I like to start adding base colors at this point. Here you can see I painted the sky, topwater, and underwater in oils with the underpainting showing through.  You can see I painted over the reef on the right of the canvas just a bit. I am not too careful with the placement of the paints as I apply background layers. This is because I will be layering more paint on top of the overpainted areas.

Turtle-Step-3 Turtle-Step-4

Step 4: Applying Colors

When I am ready to continue, I start adding in dark colors first. You can see in the following series, I painted darker colors on the turtles, started to play with shading on their shells, and then began painting the reef and reef fishes.

Turtle-Step-5a Turtle-Step-5b

Turtle-Step-5c Turtle-Step-5d

Step 5: Mistakes are OK!

As I was painting this image, I wanted a school of fish off to the bottom left of the canvas. I started painting a school of soldierfish, but felt they didn’t really fit into the scene well. I re-painted the sand bottom and instead substituted a school of surgeonfish.  It’s OK to make mistakes while you are painting so long as you take it in stride and realize it is within your power to correct it. I suggest you walk away from the painting for an hour or two and occupy your mind with something else. Then come back to the painting with a subjective eye and find your solution. I try not to make overly emotional decision when these little inconveniences pop up.

Turtle-Step-5e Turtle-Step-5f

 Step 6: Finish the Details and Varnish.

Keep adding little details to your painting as you see fit. At some point you will feel as though one more brushstroke will ruin your creation. If you get that feeling, STOP! Take a quick break and step away from the canvas to give yourself the opportunity take the painting in.

When you feel like your painting is complete, let your oil paints dry completely. This could take 30 to 60 days depending on the colors used, amount of paint used, and environment in your studio. Once dried, apply a  varnish to protect the paint from UV light and other harmful pollutants.



Big Pine Key: Diving a Species Protected Area

This is a series of videos taken while diving a Species Protected Area (SPA) just off of Big Pine Key.
Sorry to say it is not my best work as this was my first outing with the RX100/Meikon/UWL-100 rig. The white spots in some of the shot are due to not filling the space between the flat port and UWL-100 with water. The seas were 1-2 ft on the reef that day and the surge made it nearly impossible to achieve a steady shot.
Music by: Gustavo Santaolalla

Monster Mahi Painting

60"x48" Acrylic on canvas
60″ x 48″ Acrylic on canvas

This painting has to be one of my all-time favorites. The huge 60″ x 48″ canvas hold this monster bull mahi and its potential meal just below the surface.

As a gift to a good friend for Christmas this year, I found it terribly hard to give this painting up. I think the reason why it was difficult to part with this painting is due to a strong emotional connection I had with this project. I started out with just a simple sketch that I found to be exciting and vibrant. As I sketched me monster bull on the canvas there were several mistakes made to the proportions of the fish. I painted the base coat of green on the fish and couldn’t shake the feeling that the fish lacked depth and proper positioning on the canvas. It was then that I started to HATE this painting.

After some run (Barbancourt rhum for those keeping score at home) I decided to try my hand at several techniques I hadn’t implemented in several years. The multi-colored scales along the sides of the mahi are painted in a pointillism style using mostly cobalt blue and cerulean blue with a hint of bright orange to contrast and create a faux ‘iridescence’. I also took on the task of creating topwater movement that I hadn’t attempted in the past. It was after these two tasks were completed that I fell back in love with this work.

It’s interesting as an artist to look back on the creative process to understand the ebb and flow of emotion poured into a project. In fact, I believe I can safely look back on any painting I created over the last dozen years and find one time I despised what I had put on canvas. However, I find it reassuring to know that this is just one step in the creative process.

The Unseen World of Sponges

Most of us have done it. We glide along the reef, eyes wide watching the tangs dart around rocks, hoping to catch a glimpse of a turtle or shark.

Vase Sponge
Vase Sponge

Between the gorgonians you see many motionless, and rather uninteresting sponges. Some come in vibrant colors like vase sponges while others are colossal monuments to the deep, such as barrel sponges. But these filter feeding organisms are really quite remarkable!

Sponges are animals who of the Porifera phylum who are filter feeders. While they lack a nervous system like the tunicate that is similar in nature, they require a great deal of water movement around them to enable the pores of the creature to both feed and remove waste.


Barrel Sponge
Barrel Sponge

But just how affective are they at filtering? Check out the following clip that really demonstrates all the work common sponges do all along the reef.

I guarantee you will look at them in a new light during your next dive.

Transplanting the Florida Keys

Great Star Coral, Big Pine Key, FLIf you have dived the Florida Keys over the past decade, you may have noticed a decline in the health of the third largest coral reef in the world. It’s no surprise to marine biologists who work at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key.

Here, scientists have been transplanting native corals from their original habitat to temporary holding tanks. While in these tanks corals are cut into smaller shapes, or fragmented which causes an amazing reaction. While not too surprising to reefkeeping enthusiasts who practice ‘fragging’ as a way to share their favorite corals with other collectors, Dr. Vaughn noticed a phenomenon where ‘micro-fragging’ produced much more amazing results. He noticed “that those one to three polyps were now five to seven polyps,” he said. “They not only had lived — they had grown and had doubled in size.” By fragging only a few polyps of the coral, instead of a dozen or more, he found the coral reproduced much more quickly.

With a huge $35,000 grant from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, let’s hope the work at the Mote Marine Lab continues.


Read the full story here.

Florida Semaphore Cactus: Critically Endangered Consolea Corallicola

Critically endangered.
The critically endangered Semaphore Cactus.

While visiting Big Pine Key last month I was introduced to a Florida native plant that is nearing extinction.  The Florida Semaphore Cactus is a prickly pear cactus that is only found in the Florida Keys. The cacti were being cared for at the home of a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer who received them from a local botanical garden. His intentions were to find a suitable area to repopulate the cactus. The officer explained that we were “looking at two-thirds of the world’s population of Florida Semaphore cactus”. While the plants were only in his possession for just a few days, he planned to have them transplanted within the coming week.

Hard to believe at first, but after some quick research his claims of the disappearance of this plant are most certainly true. Residential and commercial development throughout the Lower Keys appears to be the largest threat of the semaphore cactus. However the introduction of the exotic cactus moth has greatly impacted the population as well as its larvae feeds on the cactus. Sea level rise also appears to be encroaching upon the habitat of the cactus.

With the FWC officer transplanting these plants in an undisclosed and undeveloped area in Big Pine Key, he very well may be saving this species indigenous to the Keys.


Read more about the semaphore cactus here.



Beautiful purple needles.
Beautiful purple needles.
This is 2/3 of the worlds population.
This is 2/3 of the world’s population.
The Semaphore Cactus.
The Semaphore Cactus.


My Rig: Sony DSC-RX100 with Meikon Housing, Inon UWL-100 Type 2, and Sea&Sea YS-01

RX-100, Meikon Housing, Inon UWL-100, Sea&Sea YS-01

With the first dive trip with my new underwater photography rig in the bag, I return with my impressions of my current dive photography rig: Sony DSC-RX100 in a Meikon Housing, an Inon UWL-100 Type 2, and a Sea&Sea YS-01. It is safe to say I am quite happy, but not without a few complaints.

Just a few, short months ago I was diving with the same camera and housing I owned for the better part of 10 years. The trusty Ikelite housing kept my Canon A720 IS safe from salty death. It’s 67mm threaded aluminum port allowed me to slide my Inon UWL-100 wide angle lens on quite easily both above and below the water’s surface. However, this camera was quite dated and touted a mere 8 megapixel resolution and an abysmal (by today’s standards) 640 x 480 @ 30fps video resolution.

Sony DCS_RX100

The Sony DSC-RX100 is the first of three generations of the RX100 product line. While not the hottest “prosumer” compact camera, the initial reviews raved of it’s 20 megapixel resolution, large sensor, and HD quality video capture. The features and functions of this camera can be found elsewhere so I won’t go into great detail here. But what I will do is explain the experiences of an amateur underwater photographer with 10 years of experience behind him.

Meikon Housing (via

Combining the camera with the Meikon underwater housing nets you a very compact package. However, unlike the Ikelite and Sea&Sea housings, the Meikon housing does not afford you the opportunity to control the jog wheel on the back of the camera. This means if you have to commit to a few extra maneuvers to control the aperture and shutter speed in full manual mode. I did find that once I was able to dial in the highest shutter speed for the depth of my dive, changing the aperture was very easy to do with the front program ring.

RX100 with UWL-100. Notice the lack of vignetting.
RX100 with UWL-100. Notice the lack of vignetting.
A720 IS with UWL-100. With a noticeable amount of vignette.
A720 IS with UWL-100. With a noticeable amount of vignette.

What I really enjoyed about this housing was the 67mm threaded port on the front of the housing. It’s close proximity to the RX100’s lens virtually eliminated the vignetting in the UWL-100. This was quite a shocking difference from the Canon/Ikelite combo I previously used. However, that very same port does not have any drainage holes like the Ikelite housing. The pros and cons of this missing element cancel each other out, in my opinion. The good thing about not having drainage holes in the port means you can create over-under shots much more easily. The bad thing about those same missing drainage holes forces you to mount your lens underwater. The potential of dropping your ‘glass’ underwater and potentially scratching the lens is nerve wracking. However, I found having water between the lens and the housing’s flat port dramatically increases your field of view.

Another thing I am not too happy about with the Meikon housing is the position of the closing hatch. The hatch was placed on the right of the camera. The unfortunate thing about this placement is that I found myself unintentionally fidgeting with the top release button. Of course if I were to depress the button my mistake I would have most certainly had a flooded camera on my hands. It took a little bit of conscience avoidance to keep my hands away from the dangerous flood gates. Furthermore the latches that are used to close the housing are made of a high density polycarbonate. While I had no issues with these plastic latches in particular, I would think that over time they may wear down and make the housing door more difficult to keep closed. This is something I will have to keep my eye on over the next few months.

Sea&Sea YS-01

The Sea&Sea YS-01 worked flawlessly with both the camera and the housing. This reliable little beast served me well by supplying plenty of light for two dives on a single charge. In fact, I found for most of the photographs I had taken only needed 1/3 of the full power to illuminate my subject. While I did not splurge for the Sea&Sea fiber optic sync cable, I was able to take a cheap optical audio cable to perform the same function. In fact, I used a 1″ pvc pipe and a hair dryer to create the pig-tail in the otherwise straight cable.

Parting Words

In all, I feel that the combination of camera, housing, lens, and sub-strobe fit nicely to create a compact and powerful rig. The vignetting with the UWL-100 is minimal, yet mounting the threaded lens to a plastic thread is somewhat frustrating. The Meikon housing does not provide access to all the functions of the camera, but your creativity can be unleashed with a few extra clicks and twists. The price of this setup is relatively cheap considering just how expensive other RX-100 housings on the market are today. However, it is safe to say Meikon has put together a sold housing that is acceptable to the amateur underwater photographer.

An Interesting Reef


Here’s an interesting patch of reef found in 55 feet of water off Islamorada. At first it looks rather unremarkable compared to the reefs found around the Florida Keys. But if you look closer you will find what looks to be a rope intertwined throughout the coral. This spot of patch reef grew from a lost lobster pot and the rope used to secure it to the marker buoy.

DSC01160 DSC01164

The neat thing about this reef is the biodiversity found in such a small area. This three square foot area held several types of sponges, some star coral, over a dozen damsels, arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp and even an anemone. That’s pretty impressive since this reef sat right in the middle of an account expansive area of a sand bottom.

President Obama Creates Worlds Largest Marine Preserve

Wake Atoll

Continuing a plan enacted by President Bush in 2009, President Obama has created the worlds largest marine preserve in the Pacific ocean. The preserve, which expands from Wake Atoll to Jarvis Island, will eliminate fishing, mining and all other commercial undersea activity in the massive 500,000 mile area. This proclomation expands the current protected areas by six times. Read more about the plan in this White House press release. Check out the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument website to learn more about the protected areas.