Captain Stephen Card
- -
Portraits of Ships

by Richard H. Wagner
Stephen Card is the leading maritime painter of the day.  His works are
prominently displayed on the ships of Cunard, Holland America, Costa and
Saga as well as in many private collections.  They can also be seen in
numerous books on ocean liners and cruise ships.  One of the reasons for their
popularity is that they are not just realistic portraits of specific ships but
rather evoke the personality of these ships and the feel of being at sea.

Captain Card's Career

Given the feel that Card’s paintings evoke, they could only have been done by
a sailor.  Born on the island of Bermuda in 1952, the sea was always close at
hand.   “I was interested in ships from the age of about 11.  It never occurred
to me to do anything else.  Initially, I wanted to be an engineer.  But I saw the
light so I went as a deck officer,” he laughs.

  As a Bermuda Sea Cadet, Card’s first opportunity to go to sea was on
Cunard Line’s Franconia in 1967.  “The trip that I was doing was the three
week Montreal cruise.  That was it, I was hooked after that.”

While still in school, Card had several other opportunities to go to sea,
which only confirmed his career choice.  Accordingly, when he finished
school in 1970, he joined the Glasgow firm of J & J Denholm Ship
Management Ltd. as a Navigating Cadet.  Over the next 11 years, he rose to
the rank of Chief Officer.  Then, in 1982, he returned to Bermuda to take up
the post of Queen’s Harbor Master.

During this period, art “was a hobby.  When I was younger, I used to do
portraits and landscapes.  It wasn’t ships - - that sort of developed over the

 One of his relatively early ship paintings was of a Holland America cargo
ship, the Noordam.   As it happened, Holland America was hosting a cocktail
party in honor of the arrival in Bermuda of a new Holland America ship also
named Noordam.  Card jokingly said to the ship’s agent:  “I’ll tell you what, I
have got this painting of the old Noordam and I will give it to you in exchange
for an invitation.”

Not only did the agent give Card an invitation but he showed the painting to
the Chairman of Holland America Line Nico van der Vorm.   He was so
impressed that at the cocktail party he asked Card to paint portraits of the
entire Holland America fleet.  “And that was the whole reason I started
painting full time.”

“I just didn’t know any better.  I figured if I could make enough to live on - -
comparable wages to what I had been earning at sea as a captain - - then I
was okay.  The first couple of years, it was maybe two-thirds, but I was
working at home, I was doing my own thing - - it did not hurt.  There were a
couple of lean years.  The hard thing with painting is that you never know
when you are going to get paid.  You have to wait for work to come in, you
have to hope for the best.  It is not easy but after awhile you learn to live with
it.  Forget about a monthly paycheck or a weekly paycheck, it just doesn’t  
happen that way.  If you are doing a show, you work for a whole year, pay out
a massive freighting bill, put the show on and you sit there with fingers
crossed hoping you are going to sell something - - risky.”

Another fortuitous event involving Holland America several years later again
altered the course of Card’s career.  Card received a copy of
Grand Dame
, by ship designer Stephen Payne and on the cover of the book
was Card’s painting of the Rotterdam that he had done for Holland America.  
This led Card to look up Payne who was working for Carnival Corporate
Shipbuilding and invite him to lunch.  Because the Rotterdam painting was an
early one and his work had developed since then, Card wanted to offer to do
a new painting for the next printing of Payne’s book.

By that point, Carnival Corporation had purchased Holland America and
Payne was working on a new ship for HAL.  She was to be called the
Statendam, a name that had been borne by four previous HAL ships.  At the
lunch, Payne asked if Card would be interested in doing a painting for the
new ship and suggested that he send Carnival Corporate Shipbuilding a
proposal. “I thought about it and I said: ‘Here’s an opportunity. Why not do a
painting of each of the five Statendams?”   Carnival liked the idea as did
Frans Dingemans, who designs the interiors for the HAL ships.  As a result,
Card has been commissioned to do a series of paintings for each of the
subsequent HAL ships - - more than 90 paintings.

When Cunard announced that it was building Queen Mary 2, Card wrote to
Carnival Corporate Shipbuilding and “said that I would like to do work for
Queen Mary 2.”   This proposal was approved and Card spent three years
working on paintings for Cunard.  Most of these are on QM2 but some are on
Queen Victoria.
These days, “most of [the paintings are] what somebody asks me to do. It is
commissions.  They will say: ‘I want a painting of such and such a ship.’  But
if I am working towards a show, then it is completely my choice and I will
spend days going through all sorts of material and then things start to work

Captain Card's Approach To Painting

Most of Card’s works are oil paintings.  “I used to work in acrylics but not
anymore.  Watercolors and oils, it is traditional.”

He did not attend art school is largely self-taught.  “The influence on my
work is more contemporary artists - - the postcard artists from the turn of the
century and more modern guys like Bill Muller.  When I see his work, I mean
bang it is there.  There was a guy working in Bermuda named Derek Foster, a
well-known yacht painter and sailing ships.  I spent time with Derek in his
studio.  A lot of what I know I picked up from Derek, that is where the
influence is. You don’t borrow but you pick up little bits of technique from
various painters.”          

When he has an idea for a painting or when a client suggests a subject for a
painting, Card’s first step is to download a photograph of that ship from the
Internet.  “I just need that to know what the ship looks like before I start
digging for everything else because I can’t remember what they all look
like.”  He then starts sketching various rough ideas into a small book that he

Before he begins to paint, however, Card looks for as many photographs of
the ship as possible.  “I sit there and can go through hundreds and hundreds of
pictures and sooner or later something just twigs at me and it could be just
anything - - a little image or detailing that would work in a different setting.”

In addition to suggesting an idea for the painting, the photographs provide
details about the ship that he needs for the painting.  “When it comes to doing
the painting, you take one little area and you have to have all the details for
that area.  So that is when you start searching for as many photographs as
possible - - close ups, different angles.  Even a window, [you know roughly]
what it looks like but does it have a divider, is it made up of two separate
pieces? Sometimes you can have a group with a curved end piece, - - there
are so many variations, yet it is just one little detail.”

 Card’s paintings are detailed but they are not technical drawings.  “When
you stand several feet away from the painting you can’t see the fine detail so
it is not really worth doing.  It doesn’t improve the image at all.  One of the
dangers of doing extreme precise work is that that it becomes a pale grey
color for a window whereas if I am doing a row of windows, I might do a
green color there and the next one I’ll paint pink to give a sunlight effect.  It
becomes more colorful than the repetitious work.  You have to play with
colors because at the end of the day that is what you are looking at is color.”

   Although Card’s paintings are in full color, he prefers to work with black
and white photos.  “If you see a color image, you tend to be bound by what
you see.  If it is in black and white you can make up your own colors.  Black
and white is best for research.  You have to research to get funnel colors
correct but that is easy enough to find out.   Color photographs are never right
anyway but it can influence you to think that that is the way something should
look.  There is one marine painter I know who cannot paint Cunard red
because he is looking at color photographs.  In the old days, if you didn’t use
the correct filter [on the camera], the red appears very dark and we know it
wasn’t, it was a very light color.”

While he uses photographs for reference, Card does not merely paint a copy
of a photograph.  Rather, he composes an entirely new scene that depicts the
ship, often in the company of other ships, in a different location.  In order to
do this, Card researched the history of the ship. “With a ship, you want to
know the background of the ship, the ship’s career - - where she traded,
when.  One of the ideas I had for [a painting of the French Line’s] Flandre
was to have her somewhere other than New York.  One of the nicest places to
me is The Solent passing the Isle of Wight because you can get a good view
of the ship.  Then, I thought I better check on my history to find out whether
Flandre went to Southampton because I have never seen pictures of Flandre in
Southampton.  Until I can track down all these little bits and pieces it is a bit
risky to say do this or do that.  Once you have an image like that, it is a
question of designing a nice sky to go with it and the direction of light, where
to give it the best overall color.”

Along the same lines, Card likes to be historically accurate about what other
ships to include in the composition beyond the main subject. “I try to do
something that will complement the ship itself.   Sometimes it is just other
ships that I like that I know could have been there at that period.  Once in a
while you could find an old newspaper, say the New York Times, and they
would say: ‘Queen Elizabeth sailed at noon.’  And then it would say: ‘Also
outbound was Kungsholm and Europa and several other ships’ and you say,
let’s put them all together.”

“Some people I know are happy to make a picture but it is the background for
me that is the interesting part.  Without the background, I do not see how
anybody could paint the picture.”

The research that Card does in connection with his paintings has enabled him
to write two books that are both art books and maritime history books.  
Cunarder presents a series of paintings that he has done of Cunard ships
along with a history of the ships depicted in the paintings.   His
America Line: A Spotless Line,
follows the same pattern except focuses on
the ships of Holland America.  In addition, he has collaborated with Pierce
Plowman on Queen of Bermuda about the Furness-Bermuda Line ship of that
name.   The same team is working on a new book A Century of Passenger
Ships to Bermuda which they plan to complete by 2010.

Some Challenges

Painting pictures that are often displayed on ships at sea presents some
challenges that landlocked artists do not face.  For example, under the new
Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations that go into effect in 2010 strictly
limit the amount of combustible material in an area on a ship such as a
staircase.  This affects the amount  and composition of such things as the
paneling, carpeting and the decoration.  Aware that their ships soon will have
to comply with these regulations, the lines have been taking them into account
in the ships they have been building.  Because a painting on canvas can burn,
some lines have directed that artists doing painting for their new ships must
paint them on aluminum panels.

“I want to paint on canvas, which is the best thing.  So, I took one of these
panels and I cut up an old painting and glued the canvas on the surface.  I
turned the gas cooker fire on and had this thing sitting [on top of the flame on
its] back.  No heat went through at all - - it was perfectly safe.  Then, I turned
it over and put the painting down [on top of the flame] and made notes.  After
20 minutes the flame had only spread [a short distance].  Unless you can get
heat behind the canvas with enough air, it is just not going to burn.  If you roll
the canvas and stand it up and put a fire to it, it will probably burn but
covered like that the flame spread is nothing.  So, I wrote all this out and I
sent it down to Carnival [Corporate Shipbuilding] and I said this business of
painting on aluminum panels is a joke.”  At first, they did not take Card
seriously but after considering the issue further, “they said: ‘Okay, just go
ahead and paint on canvas and we will glue it down, it is okay.”

Since the ships are air conditioned there is no problem with salt or dust
affecting the painting.  However, there is the problem of overzealous
stewards.  “I did a picture on Saga Rose ten years ago.  Now, there is a strip
along the bottom where the paint is almost completely gone because every
morning with a wet rag, the cabin steward wipes the frame.  It is everyday for
the last ten years and it has wiped the paint off.  When I see them I say ‘Don’t
do that!”

Despite such difficulties, Card still enjoys his work.  “Each painting is a
whole new ball game.  It is not affected by what has gone before or by what is
going to come after.  Once it is finished, it is finished and I have no interest in
whatsoever.  But the painting that is up on the easel that is the project and
yeah it is fun.”
Captain Stephen Card discussing his painting of
the second Mauretania during a tour that he
conducted of  the marine art on Queen Mary 2.

Its all about ships
and more
Above: Captain Card with his painting of
Caronia onboard QM2.

Below:  Captain Card considering his painting
of the Queen Mary.
Captain Card giving a painting
demonstration on
Queen Elizabeth 2.
Cruise interview - - Captain Stephen Card - -
"Portraits of Ships"