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How to turn your superyacht into a work of art

18 February 2021• Written by Caroline Roux

From commissioning a LEGO sculpture to a gallery-worthy artwork of your own, there are many ways to immortalise your yacht in art, learns Caroline Roux

Not every model that emerges from John Bertola’s traditional workshop in Southend-on-Sea, on the Thames Estuary in south-east England, is of a real boat. He’s currently creating a small-scale fantasy yacht for an Indian client to sail across an artificial lake. But most are perfect representations of existing craft, whose owners are happy to wait months and spend thousands to have a mini model of their treasured boat to keep at home or in the office. For some they are conversation pieces, but for others they are essential.

It is perhaps unique to the world of boat ownership that those who possess them can often be a long distance from them. “Having a model helps people to cure their separation anxiety,” says Brad Poulos, known as Captain Brad, a model maker in San Diego. “The minute you step off the boat, you feel sad about leaving all those amazing times behind. But you can have it, in miniature, on your desk or in your hallway.”

Credit: Arjan Oude Kotte

In some cases, it can keep the memories alive even after the vessel is no longer theirs. “People hold on to a painting they’ve commissioned after they’ve sold the yacht on,” says Christopher Wheat, an artist in upstate New York who specialises in marine scenes and boat “portraits”. While Martyn Mackrill, who is based on the Isle of Wight in England and is passionate about maritime history, remarks that the moment an owner sees a painting of their boat, they can’t resist having it, whether they’ve commissioned it or not. “It’s an emotional connection,” he says, recalling an enormous painting he’d made for his own pleasure of the 19 metre class Mariquita, built on the Clyde in 1911. “The minute the owner saw the picture he wanted it.”

These model makers and painters work in similar ways, carrying out extensive research into the vessel – studying the original design drawings, visiting the boat itself, using videos and photographs and frequently tapping the captain for the elusive details that even an expert might miss. Emily Harris has moved the process of commemoration into the 21st century with the lyrical films she makes for private owners.

Clients increasingly come from the newer boat-owning class made up of Silicon Valley success stories, but the commemorative solutions are not always high value or high tech. While it’s true that Robert Eddy, the master model maker of Maine, replicates the tiniest details in precious metals and diamonds, in Opmeer in the Netherlands, Arjan Oude Kotte is now overwhelmed by requests for his LEGO models. “I especially like the challenge of creating a hull in LEGO,” says Oude Kotte, “that actually is just like the real thing.” If it’s a conversation piece you’re after, that would be hard to beat.

Arjan Oude Kotte

Opomeer, the Netherlands

Credit: Arjan Oude Kotte

There’s a name for people who build with LEGO,” says Arjan Oude Kotte. “We’re called AFOLs, or Adult Fans of LEGO.” But for this Dutchman, it is more than a game: his model boats made of plastic bricks are increasingly sought after. A trained chemist and bike mechanic, he still works in a bicycle wholesale company by day, turning to LEGO at night.

Oude Kotte returned to LEGO when his sons were born, and started building mining shovels for his own enjoyment. But thanks to the internet, his work was soon discovered online and the commissions have been flowing in. An average model (for example, built at 1:40 scale and measuring around 130 centimetres) takes him three months to design, using LEGO’s own brick-by-brick building software, and then it takes another one to two months to assemble the bricks and do the build.

“It’s hard to give you a cost, because it depends on many things, including scale and colour,” says Oude Kotte. “Not all bricks are the same price. Some colours are very rare, and so are expensive, and the company won’t produce bricks to order. I just have to use what exists – old and new.” Some colours don’t exist at all, while a colour like teal would be a real challenge. “There are very few of them. But I’d enjoy taking it on.”

Recently, Oude Kotte was contacted by Kynan McDonald, the captain of 63.7-metre Scout, which was being built for James Berwind by Dutch yard Hakvoort. “It’s only a 30-minute drive from here, so we were able to meet at the yard and discuss the project.” The model now has pride of place on Berwind’s yacht. Meanwhile, he has allowed Oude Kotte to make 25 sets of the LEGO Scout that come complete with all the bricks in a box with full instructions of how to construct the model. It’s one way to build your very own superyacht. konajra.com

John Bertola

Southend-on-Sea, UK

Credit: John Bertola

John Bertola has made 303 models in his 35 years of creating scaled-down boats in his studio on the east coast of England. A keen sailor himself, he crewed on ocean racers in the 1960s and 1970s while working as a graphic artist and photographer. Then in 1985, he decided to convert his passion for marine architecture and his keen eye for detail into a full-time job. Four years later, he made the model of Tracy Edwards’ Maiden that is now housed in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in London.

Working on several commissions at a time, Bertola, now 83, says a model can take anything from one to two and a half years to complete, at a cost ranging from £8,000 to £20,000. “It varies so much depending on detail and whether they want a full hull or waterline model,” he says. The models are made in wood, with plastic mouldings and sails made of a light, woven paper. “We make sunloungers out of foam and cover them with stripy paper that I print myself,” he says of his exacting and accurate renditions.

Credit: John Bertola

Bertola has had a number of prestigious clients and boats, including Peter de Savary’s Victory 83, famously beaten by Australia II at the 1983 America’s Cup. But his favourite is the model he made of Endeavour for Elizabeth Meyer, known for her restoration of J Class yachts. “I built it in 1991,” says Bertola, whose business is called Super Yachts Super Models. “In fact I built 11 models for various people, including two for Elizabeth and one for myself, all with individual deck planking. The construction is identical to a real yacht.”

And although he has never worked with Donald Trump, Bertola has recreated Trump Princess (now Kingdom 5KR), the 86-metre yacht built by Benetti first for Adnan Khashoggi. Trump sold the boat to Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal in 1991 for $20 million (then £10.3m). “The Prince asked me for 10 models, each six and a half feet long,” says Bertola. “And he’d give them to everyone he signed off a business deal with on the boat.” Quite a gift. superyachts-supermodels.co.uk

Christopher Wheat

Rochester, New York; Nantucket, Massachusetts

Credit: Christopher Wheat

The self-taught Christopher Wheat knew he’d be an artist from the age of five. The realisation that he’d dedicate his life to painting boats came 20 years later. “I grew up on a lake,” says Wheat, who now lives between Rochester and Nantucket, “so there was always a boat in view somewhere. But when I started going to Nantucket and Cape Cod, the larger yachts were really inspiring.”

Now Wheat goes all over the world, usually working with the boat’s captain to make an extensive series of photographs. “You need to have every detail documented,” he says. “But I’m a studio painter, so I take back all the information and work there.

“Commissions are nerve-racking, because you’re painting something real and it has to be right,” he continues. “But the job, for me, is to demonstrate what an amazing piece of machinery this is.  A yacht is a symbol of great prestige and to make it into a painting enhances its status.”

Size matters, of course. “With a superyacht, the picture needs to be a certain size,” says Wheat. “The smallest would be 24 inches by 36 inches [61cm by 91cm]. But when I did Eclipse, for example,” he says of the 162.5-metre Blohm+Voss vessel delivered to Roman Abramovich in 2010, “it worked better at 36 x 48 inches.”

Wheat is cautious about prices and clients, though suffice to say, if you can afford a superyacht, you can afford one of his paintings. “I did the Life of Reilley recently,” he says of the Burger-built motor yacht. “I’m not at liberty to say who owns it,” he continues, “but it’s someone from San Francisco.” Not that he’s often in touch with any owners. “It’s usually the captain or the interior decorator who makes contact first.” And these days it’s often through Instagram. “A commission! That’s definitely the best direct message to get,” says Wheat. christopherwheat.com; @nantucket_artist

Martyn Mackrill

Isle of Wight, UK

Credit: Martyn Mackrill

"I’m not just interested in yachting,” says Martyn Mackrill, “but all kinds of maritime history.” Over the past decade, however, he has become the go-to artist for extraordinary and exhilarating paintings of yachts in action on the high seas. “You have to go to sea yourself, you have to live it and to love it,” he says.

Currently working on a picture for a friend, showing him sailing his Rustler 37 yacht, Mackrill declares himself most interested in the relationship between owner and boat, as well as that between vessel and environment. And his own experience on the water helps his work considerably. “Ships behave differently in deep water. People who don’t go to sea don’t know that.”

Mackrill, who charges around £15,000 to £20,000 for a painting, carries out extensive research into the craft itself, then begins to make pencil sketches. “Sometimes I do a small oil first, just to get the ideas right out of my head.” After that he says it is a question of shapes and patterns. “A painting is an abstraction. It’s not a  still; it’s not a frozen moment like a camera image. It has more emotion, more narrative.”

Five years ago, he completed a painting of Titania of Cowes for a client who had sailed her in the Sydney-Hobart race in raging weather. “He had some film footage of the race that had been taken from a helicopter. You could see this huge dangerous sea sweeping right over her. I wanted to set the boat right into the elements: the bright weather and the tumbling blue sea.”  A large picture, 60 inches by 40 inches, it conjures up the excitement and fear of racing in extreme weather conditions.

At the other end of the spectrum, he has just received a commission from a woman whose father was a surgeon on one of the rescue ships in the Second World War that moved along with convoys, picking up survivors when the boats were torpedoed. “She wants me to paint her father’s ship picking up the men.” A rather different kind of commemoration. martynmackrill.co.uk

Robert Eddy

Camden, Maine

Atlantide, which Robert Eddy completed in 2000 for the late Tom Perkins
Credit: Robert Eddy

My first paying commission was to make a model of a friend’s boat, a Luders 33, and I did it all by eye, and charged $50,” says Robert Eddy. Since turning a hobby  into a profession he has trained as a jeweller in order to make exquisite metal parts, learned how to make moulds and fully embraced technology. “Now we can receive digital information from the designers and I generate my own drawings with AutoCAD. But you still need to visit the boat, depending on scale for up to two weeks, as not all the details are on the drawings.” A purchase of a CNC cutting machine some years ago means everything happens in his workshop.

Unsurprisingly, prices go up to $200,000. “Part of my job is educating people,” says Eddy. “You don’t go into an art gallery and ask how much the materials cost and how long the painter took.” And some of Eddy’s materials are very costly. Using his jeweller’s skills, he can cast parts such as winches, cleats and blocks in different golds: white gold for stainless steel; yellow for bronze and green for patinated bronze. Winch tops can be finished with tiny diamonds.

Eddy wrestles with the preference for large motor yachts. “It’s a floating hotel – impressive, but not what memories are made of.” No surprise, then, that he talks lyrically about working on a model of Maltese Falcon, for the late Tom Perkins. The 88-metre square-rigged sailing yacht was completely revolutionary at the time of its completion in 2006. With three free-standing carbon-fibre masts, its sails could be set at the press of a button in record time. Perkins apparently kept it on his desk, a reminder of what can be achieved by a truly adventurous spirit. yachtmodels.com

Brad Poulos

San Diego, California

The helm station on Dumb Luck
Credit: Brad Poulos

"I have a customer in Vegas who called his first boat Dumb Luck,” laughs Brad Poulos. “I think that was a Palmer Johnson. Then he got a 125-footer and named it the same, and called me again. But he keeps his models on the boat itself,” says Poulos, a fact he clearly finds confusing.

SD Model Makers, established 12 years ago, works on design and then outsources the production of models. Until five years ago, it was mostly to the Philippines but now it is to China. “They are more comfortable with CNC cutting and plastic moulding there,” says Poulos, “and they’re good at fine detailing. Now I’m just having to deal with our president and his trade embargoes.”

There are, he explains, two standard forms of construction. One is to make a solid hull, hand carved from wood with some machine assistance, with components made from metal, wood and epoxy. The other, where the Chinese shine, is to create a wooden frame and wrap it around with ABS – a thermoplastic material.

Pricing depends on complexity. “A 2ft [60cm] model will be in the region of $2,000,” he says. “The biggest private commission I’ve done is a six-footer [1.8m], but most are 2ft to 3ft [60-90cm]. The big boat guys – 100ft [30m] and beyond – tend to order bigger in the 3ft to 4ft [90cm-1.2m] range. I’ve done a few megayachts.” sdmodelmakers.com

First published in the May 2020 edition of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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