William R. Davis

Cape Cod Art  /  ART Annual 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

“Three Sisters Lighthouses”

William R. Davis never thought he could make money as an artist, but his outlook changed in 1988, when the Mystic Maritime Gallery provided him the opportunity of a one-man show. He brought 28 paintings to the event and recalls, “I sold every one of them.” Following this breakthrough, he has enjoyed international acclaim and success; he is known especially for his marine art and for his attention to fine detail. And yet, much of his work stems from learning to sail a humble Beetle Cat in Hyannis Port when he was ten years old. 

Davis recalls that his family owned a larger sailboat that they would take to the Vineyard, but he spent much of his childhood summers sailing around Nantucket Sound in the Beetle. “We used to sail down to Osterville and spend the night on our Beetle Cats,” he says. “We’d listen to the bridge going up and down.” He would also sail around Point Gannon from Bass River and into Baxters. Davis’ time on the water would grow into artistic inspiration, as he explains, “Many of my subjects are related to childhood memories, to places I’ve sailed.” It’s no coincidence that over the years he has painted “over half of the Beetle Cat fleet.” 

Silent Sunset • 10″ x 8″ • Oil

Mostly self-taught as a painter, Bill Davis first found work in his father’s industry: construction. He was installing air conditioning and returning home to paint at night in the kitchen. “I taught myself from scratch, using Sotheby’s catalogs and trying to reproduce the colors from paintings,” he says. He would cut strips from magazines and match the colors. “Now, I can look at a color and match it within minutes,” he comments. This talent led to restoration assignments on works of renowned artists such as James Buttersworth. “After a while, I decided no more of this; I didn’t want to get bogged down,” he explains. 

In order to achieve precision in his colors, Davis works exclusively in oils, although he does use acrylic paint for underpainting, particularly when he is painting on location. “The acrylics speed the development of a painting,” he says, “I’ve been doing this for forty years.” 

Fishing Schooner off Monomoy • 12″ x 16″ • Oil

Over the years, Davis has painted most of the Cape’s local sailboats, including Beetle Cats, Wianno Seniors and Juniors, and Cotuit Skiffs. But he is more well-known for his paintings of larger boats such as schooners and clippers in a 19th-century style. “They have a slightly nostalgic feel,” he says. “I don’t do much of the modern fiberglass boats; I call them Clorox bottles.” Most of Davis’ work is on panel, and many of his pieces are as small as 5 x 7 inches. All of his frames are handmade in Central Falls, Rhode Island, at Motyka Frames, and gilded in gold leaf. 

Fishermen Off Thacher Island • 6″ x 8″ • Oil

Davis was also a pioneer online. He recalls, “I jumped on the web in the 1990’s, and there was no competition there yet. The Cape Cod papers had  articles about my site, and I was getting calls from all over the world. I sold a lot of paintings that way, shipped them overseas.” Auctions have also helped Davis from a business perspective. “People who are interested in art are interested in auction records,” he explains. “They can be a very good sales tool; something that I learned in London was that prices can go way over retail.”

Over the past year, Bill Davis has stayed busy, and he has been experimenting with new techniques, painting on dark gray panels, focusing on nocturns. “Coming from dark to light lets me go darker,” he explains, “and the light jumps out of the painting.” While many of his pieces are smaller, one recent painting of Brant Point Light measures 15” x 30”. “I’ve been doing a whole series on lighthouses,” he says. “People think the subject is overdone, but I do them in my own way. For a career in art, it’s been a lot of fun.”

West Chop Light, Circa 1830 • 10″ x 8″ • Oil

See more of William R. Davis’ work at wrdfa.com.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.