“ The day I turned three years old, when my birth was still fresh in my mother’s memory, she made a cake decorated with toy trucks parked on a sea of aqua-colored icing. Twenty-two years later that memory surfaced as I drove down Washington Avenue and caught the first glimpse of the art deco hotels coated in brightly painted stucco swirls. A giant aqua cake basking in the subtropical sun.”
So begins “South Beach. Two Decades of Deco District Paintings” the premier book of my watercolors was published by Schiffer in 2006.
Soon after that first tour of Miami Beach, I began a series of large watercolors that would define my career as a painter known for realist watercolors of Art Deco hotels. In 1992, I moved to Florida and established my first painting studio in South Beach on Espanola Way. It was collaboration with artist and muralist Pierre Marcel. In 1999 I opened my own studio in Scott Robins’ Espanola Way Artist Building. The Mark Rutkowski studio remained there until its conversion into a hotel in 2013.
The period of 1992 through 1999 produced the most watercolors of the South Beach Deco District, creating more than 300 titles including landmark pieces such as "Marlin at Dusk", "Park Central at Night" and a series of Night Cafés that included "Cardozo", "Imperial Casablanca" and "Avalon".
A landmark retrospective “Mark Rutkowski. The South Beach Paintings 1984-1994” opened in the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. Then director Dr. Kenworth Moffett in his introduction characterized the show as one from, “An extraordinarily refined painter”. That same year Public Television Carlos Pagan produced a 6-minute film for about the South Beach Paintings. It received an Emmy Award for regional features in 1995.
In 1998, I traveled to Bali, Indonesia at the invitation of Rachael Barrett, Owner of Gallery Blue Moon, for a 6-month artist-in-residency. I stayed a year and developed a long standing relationship and following. When I returned to South Beach, I needed to inspire myself all over again to Art Deco. Doorways became the answer. I enhanced my focus and produced a series of South Beach Doors of significance, including the front door where Versace was gunned down in 1997. The technique I used to create the doorway series was also unique. The watercolors were first completely painted then cut in pieces and re-assembled in relief.
By the turn of the millennium reconstruction, development and money flowed had back into Miami Beach and the effort to save the art deco hotels had been a glittering success. South Beach had been transformed from dangerous undesirable ghetto to a wonderland and Ocean Drive entered into the American psyche the likes of Bourbon Street, Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. South Beach had become a brand. By that time I had begun focusing on the Atmospheres series, large oil seascapes and cloudscapes depicting the sky so unique to the Florida peninsula. And I had incorporated regular residencies in France and Bali during the slow summer season.
Miami Beach is home to the largest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world and the two and three storied hotels were ideal subjects for watercolor. The colorful shadows and bright sunlight cascading across curving façades initially inspired me. In the sub tropics, purple faded to lavender under an eyebrow sunshade. Palm shadows danced lazily on the surface of an absinthe-colored stucco wall. All of this was routine morning’s imagery on Ocean Drive. Images for painting were scattered all around like shells on the shoreline.
I choose to paint an image based on history, personal and architectural significance and how the light affected the angles. I began by roughly photographing a subject at different times of day to have a range of light and colors. Once I choose a time of day I then choose the angle. I photograph close-ups in a grid to have a complete library of details to work from. I also bracketed the shot to get different exposures. I generally needed 200 photographs to go to the next step.
In the studio the image is cropped and the size of the painting determined. I soak the paper and stretch it on a ¾” varnished plywood. I added more water with a large clean brush. Once it is saturated and flat, I staple the paper along the edge of the board and leave it to dry for the day.
In the second step, I make a very loose but dimensionally accurate drawing. This drawing would only take a few minutes, just a sketch. Next I square off the image using drafting tools. I like to have the image exist in the middle of the paper. The first application of pigment is the sky and to prepare, the outline of the building is drawn in detail then masked off. More than enough pigment is prepared on a clean palette, the sky area is dampened evenly with a clean brush then the color applied evenly using a 3” brush in a up and down, back and forth pattern until the area is completely covered. The process is continued moving the pigment around until covered. Then I apply a second layer of pigment. The color should be 1/3rd darker than what is called for because as pigment dries it becomes lighter. I add clouds by wiping out pigment with a clean, damp rag or brush. Once satisfied with the sky, I set the brushes down and softly go in with a blow dryer until the paper is completely dry. Only then do I remove the mask. The painting is ready for the next step.
I go back to drawing from the top down using the detail photos as reference and choosing the best exposures from the photos for color and contrast. I only draft portions of the image and then paint to minimize smudging pencil lines. In a watercolor that may take over 60 hours to complete, it also helps to switch from drawing to painting several times a day just to avoid tedium. As the sections become complete, I move down the paper until I’ve eventually reached the bottom where the signature completes the painting.
To date I have produced some 300 watercolors in the Art Deco Series, many of which are in print. All the originals are in private or museum collections and now in the 30th year, the appeal of the South Beach paintings remain as popular as the Art Deco district is today.