Standing in front of a painting that’s just a tall as you—even taller—is awe-inspiring. Standing in front of a 6-foot tall David Witbeck painting is an experience made all the more remarkable given the larger-than-life nature of his subjects—take, for instance, a fisherman with a tiny head and long body holding a gigantic fish.
The exaggerated, cartoon-like nature of Witbeck’s paintings creates a sense of whimsy—he says they’re more fun that way. “What people tell me over and over is they love my work because it makes them smile. That’s a good reason to paint,” he says. “And I know I have a winner when I look at it and it makes me smile.”
Witbeck’s career in the arts didn’t initially involve painting. While he started painting as a student at the Pratt Institute, his interest shifted to photography, and in 1980 he moved to Rhode Island, where he still resides, to study photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He went on to work as a freelance photographer for 25 years, doing commercial photography in Providence and Boston. Eventually, though, his interest in the work waned. “I started painting for the fun of it, and around 2006 I had a pretty good year selling paintings, so in 2007 I decided to stop being a photographer and see if I could make it as a painter,” he says.
Witbeck finds his photography background, and sense of composition, has influenced his style of painting. “When I was a photographer,” he explains, “whenever I was in a situation where people were doing something with their hands, I moved in close with the lighting and the lens and photographed what they were doing, and the rest of the body just sort of receded into the distance. That kind of spilled over into the painting, as I focus on the hands holding the fish.” Witbeck says he’s passionate about the coast, and commercial fishing, though his only connection to water growing up in upstate New York was the Hudson River.
“On family vacations when I was a little kid, every now and then we’d go to the Cape or to Maine, and I was always fascinated by it—the smell of the sea, the brightly colored fishing boats,” he recalls. “When I was in junior high and high school, I read every sea story I could get my hands on. Sometimes I think maybe in a previous life I was a sailor.”
The majority of Witbeck’s paintings—primarily done in oil, sometimes acrylic, and typically measuring around 2 feet by 3 feet—depict fishermen, but he is currently working on a series of coastal paintings without fishermen, which he describes as “made up harbor scenes.” “They’re representational, but not realistic,” he explains, noting that some objects, like boats and wharf buildings, are disproportionate but well composed, “and they’re fun to look at.”
“There’s generally one big shape in all of my paintings, one overwhelming shape,” he adds, “but then I have all these other little things going on here and there,” like a slight color shift, or a little seagull with a fish in its mouth, “so that wherever you look in the painting there’s something to look at.”