WATERCOLORS: Five questions (+1) about painting in the Apostle Islands with watercolorist Dale Whittaker

Dale Whittaker painting in the early morning sun - Jeff Rennicke

July 7, 2023

Like a work of art itself - Jeff Rennicke photo

Tinged with the colors of a morning sky, dotted with autumn leaves, reflecting the greens of pine needles and the soft orange of the sandstone walls, Lake Superior can seem like a work of art all by itself. The allure of those colors has long attracted painters seeking to capture even a glimpse of the natural beauty of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands.

Recently, Executive Director Jeff Rennicke spent a morning in the Islands with watercolorist Dale Whittaker drifting, talking about art and light and mystery and inspiration.

Dale sitting in the cockpit of Little Dipper, observing the scene he's painting - Jeff Rennicke photo

As they talked, a painting began taking shape under the artistry of Whittaker’s brush, a watercolor painting created with the very waters of Lake Superior. Here is a glimpse of that conversation and the stages of a piece of watercolor art in the making both from on the water and back in the artist’s studio.

Paintbrush lays down the first vibrant colors on paper - Jeff Rennicke photo

1) When did you start painting and why?

I experimented with painting and drawing as a child, but shelved it until my 50s.  I painted daily during COVID and would mark that as the time I really started painting.  Why?  For me, when I paint, I lose track of time.  I am totally oblivious to the world around me and totally focused on the subject.  It is meditative in some ways. 

2) What do you look for in a subject before you begin to paint it?

I look for something that grabs me.  It is not reasoned.  Not in my head.  It is an instinct.  I watch for the small moments around me rather than grand vistas and postcard views. 

Pencil sketch on paper - Jeff Rennicke photo
Sandstone and tree limbs take shape - Jeff Rennicke photo

3) What are the qualities of the Apostle Islands that draw you to focus your work there? 

Golden light, reflections, trees and cliffs with a spirit and character that has been developing for hundreds or thousands of years.  The rapidly changing moods of the sky and water.  To be honest, there is a spiritual energy in the islands that is palpable. 

I believe it is why civilizations have landed here over time.  I find that when a moment excites me, I have more fun and it is more natural for the painting to capture that mood. 

4) When a viewer steps up to one of your paintings framed in a gallery, what is it that you hope they see in it?

I hope they feel more than they see.  I hope they feel the mood of the moment, experience a sense of awe, and are taken to a wild, beautiful place that is much as it has always been.


5) What is the one place or scene in the Apostle Islands that you haven’t had the opportunity to paint yet but hope to?

Sand lighthouse at sunset.

A tree branch hangs over a sandstone cliff - Jeff Rennicke photo

+ 1) What is the role of mystery in a painting and do the Apostle Islands have that sense of mystery you are seeking?

Mystery creates the story of a painting.  It pulls you in.  It challenges you to complete the story, to imagine what is through that window, through those trees.  The Apostle Islands are FULL of mystery and magic. 

Dale Whittaker's finished work

To see more of Dale Whittaker’s work visit the Bell Street Gallery in Bayfield or on Madeline Island or go to the gallery’s website.

For more on the ways the Apostle Islands have inspired painters, poets, musicians, jewelry makers and more, watch our video “Sense of Adventure: Inspire.”

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