Artist Paul Schulenburg paints the inspiring life that surrounds him on Cape Cod.
In Paul Schulenburg’s painting, Soon to Return, a catboat lies canted on its port side upon the sandy tidal flats of Cape Cod Bay. In the immediate background, turquoise green water bisects the sandbar; along the horizon the cornflower blue bay converges with a pink line of sky. Although the time of day is most likely dusk, there’s an ambiguity about the palette that could allow one to register dawn instead. Either way, the metaphor in the painting’s title works, for whether the sun is setting on this particular period or rising to usher in a new one, the theme of returning is most apropos in 2021.
Vacationers, tourists, and summer people will come back to the Cape this season, families will reunite, and the tide will flood over these sand flats to buoy that catboat once again.
Schulenburg says, “During the time of Covid, I have been working closer to home, so I have been doing these paintings alone at the beach at the end of my road, or high and dry in my studio. I’ve used this time to concentrate on my work, doing several paintings of boats on the flats at low tide. The motionless boats allude to how we have been waiting for the pandemic to end; for the tide to return, so that we can all sail back into our normal lives.” Thus, while on the surface this painting may be of a boat at rest on the sand, there is also a deeper symbolic message. “My paintings often will have a narrative quality, but usually it’s a partial narrative; something to pique your interest but not tell the whole story.”
Schulenburg paints a variety of subjects, from scenes in cafes or village streets, to landscapes consisting of beaches and inlets, to people moving through these worlds- exploring, working, or unwinding. Depending on the subject, he will sometimes adjust his style to fit the mood and situation. “For example, if I am painting a serene painting of my wife, there may be more blending, maybe a softer use of color and of paint,” he says. “If it’s an active scene at the Chatham fish pier, there might be more contrast, more color, and there may be blockier, thicker paint in chunkier brushstrokes, which helps convey that rustic feeling of the fish pier.”
Over his career, scenes of fishermen returning with their catch have been recurring subjects for Schulenburg. He became fascinated with the fish pier in the late 90’s; he says, “I was painting a few local landscapes, like people do. It was springtime, and the weather was still a bit gray on the Cape. I was driving around looking for subject matter when I decided to stop at the fish pier. I was intrigued with the activity, the colors the fishermen were wearing, and the perspective of looking down into the boats.” He had studied figurative painting at Boston University, taking classes in anatomy and classical training in painting the human form. “So painting the fisherman was another way of exploring figurative work,” he says, “and capturing an integral historical part of Cape Cod that is not observed by as many people. It’s the working, gritty part. There’s a beauty in that which intrigued me.”
While sometimes Schulenburg connects with the workers, other times he’s just a face in the crowd. He explains: “The fish pier can be packed with people watching and taking pictures, so the fishermen are used to being observed. If there aren’t many people around I will talk to the workers, but I try not to bother them. Basically they’re working and I’m working, and I try not to get in their way.” Schulenburg’s conversations might also lead to further developments such as finding models who come into the studio to pose for him and for other painters. “I studied a fisherwoman at the pier for quite a while one particular day. Eventually I felt I should explain to her why I’d been watching her,” says Schulenburg. He gave her his business card and explained what he was doing. Since then, he has painted several large paintings of Stephanie, and she has posed in her fishing gear at his studio during one of the many group painting sessions he holds with other artists.
In addition to fishermen, one of Schulenburg’s favorite subjects is his wife, Pharr. He says, “She’s an attractive woman, and I like spending time with her. We are often together and it helps that she knows the business of art. She’ll pose for drawings and paintings, or for reference photos. Wherever we are, at home or away, I might notice a special light and shadow, or color combination. There might be something special about the scene and the way she looks. I’ll take a few reference photos that might be useful. Sometimes it’s unplanned, at a restaurant or a cafe or out traveling. Sometimes we’ll go out looking for inspiration, and other times it’s just a matter of catching her at the right moment, when we least expect it.”
Although Paul Schulenburg graduated from Boston University with a degree in fine arts and had been drawing and painting since a young age, early in his career he believed that he would become an art teacher at the high school or college level because, he says, “I thought that’s what artists did to make a living.” However, some of his friends had gone into graphic design, which led him to a job in advertising, where he eventually started doing freelance illustration. He worked for local magazines and book publishers, but “then branched out around the country and internationally, taking on a lot of corporate work — brochures, newsletters,” he recalls. “It was conceptual work rather than realism. It’s very different from what I do now. It was problem solving, so if they had a concept they wanted to convey (‘worldwide communication’ for example) I had to come up with a way to convey that idea with an image.” He saw the work as a series of challenges, and looking back, Schulenburg has been able to see how his early job moves helped his painting career. “Different tools carried over,” he says. “Professionalism, deadlines, working with others.…” Throughout those years, he always thought of himself as a painter. “Painting was my first love, and eventually I went back to it.” But his experience making a living as a commercial illustrator helped in the transition to gallery sales. “Fine art is very enjoyable, but it’s also a business, and it helps to realize that.”
In the late 90s Schulenburg started the career transition. “It had been about 20 years since I had done much oil painting, and my wife was encouraging me to get back to it,” He recalls her saying: “You studied oil painting in college. Maybe it’s time you started again.” In 2000 Schulenburg approached Helen Addison, at the Addison Art Gallery in Orleans. At the time, he was still working full time as an illustrator but had begun painting again on the side. Helen Addison took about 12 paintings at their first meeting. In the first month or two she sold most of them, and I made the decision to concentrate on painting full time.” Over the past two decades, Schulenburg has also shown his work at galleries in New York, North Carolina, and Maine, but he says, “Addison is my primary gallery for sure; this is my 21st year.”
Paul Schulenburg has painted in watercolor, acrylic, oil pastels, colored pencils…, but he identifies as an oil painter. “I decided to try to become as proficient in oils as I could be. It’s a traditional medium, and I think it’s the best.” For Schulenburg, acrylics dry too quickly, and watercolors can be a frustrating medium, although he has used them at times for sketching. He recognizes the skill required in watercolor painting which he thinks can a fun challenge. He also notes that oil paintings are easier to frame and, “Like it or not, watercolors are harder to sell. I think that there is less perceived value in watercolor versus oil.” Oil also lends itself best to Schulenburg’s overall style, or styles, of painting. “I usually describe my style as ‘painterly realism’. I don’t typically use abstraction in my work, but I also usually try not to go overly realistic and rendered. I like to show brushstrokes and textures; I want the work to look like a painting, but at the same time I like capturing light and life somewhat accurately.”
As Schulenburg heads deeper into 2021, he is looking forward to painting more friends, neighbors, and fishermen, and to the world expanding once again following the lockdown of the pandemic. But he doesn’t have any particular agenda or plan. “What’s coming next?” he asks. “It’s one painting at a time. I’m never quite sure where painting will take me next. It’s kind of an adventure, so we’ll see. I paint whatever is interesting to me at the moment, and I find the people around me are endlessly interesting. Books and movies are about people. Songs are about people. There’s no reason why a painting has to be about a bowl of fruit.”
Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.
Paul Schulenburg’s work is exclusively represented on Cape Cod by Addison Art Gallery in Orleans.