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Canadian artist to talk about War of 1812 paintings Thursday in Sackets Harbor


SACKETS HARBOR — Anyone interested in military history art has likely run across the name of Canadian artist Peter J. Rindlisbacher.

Mr. Rindlisbacher, who will give a presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Seaway Trail Discovery Center, has over the past three decades made a living by painting historical marine scenes from the War of 1812. During his presentation at the center, 401 W. Main St., he will talk about the creative process involved in developing historical paintings. Admission is free.

Paintings by Mr. Rindlisbacher have appeared on book jackets and been purchased by the U.S. and Canadian governments, along with museums and historical organizations including the Canadian War Museum, Parks Canada and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.

Mr. Rindlisbacher is a native of Windsor, Ontario. As a youngster, he grew up learning in school about Canada’s historic battles on Lake Erie.

“I grew up just opposite of Detroit on the Canadian side, and that area was extremely affected by the War of 1812,” he said during a phone interview from his home in Katy, Texas. “Canadians had success in the early part of the war, but the Battle of Lake Erie certainly turned things around. The area was ravaged by the war and changed hugely by it. It wasn’t just a historical footnote.”

Mr. Rindlisbacher later became interested in painting during his college years in the late 1980s, when he discovered there was only a slim portfolio of historical marine paintings from the War of 1812 era. He learned how to paint historical art as a hobby while attending graduate school at Queen’s University, Kingston, where he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology.

“What I found was just fascinating — the war had been portrayed so little by paintings that had survived from that time,” he said. “You could read about historical events, but there weren’t any historical pictures to go with them. Or you would see lousy portraits that were shown over and over again — these artists were copying each other’s designs.”

His hobby of painting historical scenes from the war quickly evolved into a profession as he discovered there was demand for his work among historical and educational groups.

“They needed me to provide visuals to illustrate their subject and make it more accessible to the public,” he said.

Painting historical marine art cannot be done quickly, however, because of the time it takes to be historically and technically accurate, Mr. Rindlisbacher said.

“Historical types have a degree of disdain for artists that say, ‘That sounds like a neat subject; I’ll peel one off.’ The tough part about it is getting past the blunders and pitfalls caused by bad information,” he said. “Early on, I was repeatedly embarrassed when I would work away in solitude and try to do my best. An expert would say, ‘Nice painting, but the ship didn’t leave on that day.’ Then the whole painting would be an imaginary piece of crap.”

The technical accuracy needed to paint historical ships is also a challenge, Mr. Rindlisbacher said. Painting rigging lines on ships, for example, is tough because they have to be extremely thin and precise.

“Back then, they had to use levers, tackles and other equipment where humans had to do a huge amount of weightlifting and pulling — well beyond his or her strength,” he said. “The rigging setups were extremely well thought out. Lines are either thick or thin, tied or loose, attached to a sail or spar.”

“What you’re doing is basically building the ship on canvas. And I can do my best with a fine brush, but if the line was only two inches in diameter, my fine brush work would look like a six-foot tree. So I have to use an X-acto knife to paint it even finer.”

Historical painters sometimes run the risk, though, of becoming too obsessed with the finer points of a painting, Mr. Rindlisbacher said.

“At a certain point, you might know there is even more detail to paint, but you have to decide you’re not going to do more,” he said. “It’s a problem, because I know enough about how sails work and what they need. Even though a sail needs a set of ropes, I might decide not to put them in. With a painting of a certain size, you might decide it’s idiotic.”

Ultimately, Mr. Rindlisbacher said, he hopes those who attend his presentation will learn something new about the process of historical painting.

“This time, I’m going to talk about how to create a painting that doesn’t exist, from beginning to the end,” he said. “People will see how I do certain things, and I hope they will be encouraged to take a whack at it.”

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