The sea captains of the so-called Great Age of Whaling describe a profusely abundant sea, and what seemed endless numbers of whale-kind. As with the vast bison herds that swarmed the plains, an observer of the 1850s would have believed their numbers inexhaustible. But that time is long vanished, both for the whale and the whale-hunter. Those abundant seas and lucrative voyages are the "lost latitudes" of the title—an ocean Eden erased from the mariner's map.
A Book of Lost Latitudes is a collection of ink drawings reflecting on the mystery and mythology of the whale. Inspired by the whale's role in lore and legend, the book evokes its subject through allusion and symbolism rather than words.
I consider two thousand fourteen to be my Year of the Whale. What began with a single painting turned into a yearlong obsession, countless drawings, and the impetus for this book. At the beginning of the year, I had become interested in painting Physeter Macrocephalus, the sperm whale. With its distinctively blocky profile, it is the most iconic of the cetaceans.
I started looking historical illustrations of the animal from old science books, and I quickly noticed something odd: none of them looked quite right: some were thin like eels; others looked rotund like blowfish. And a realization dawned on me: until the advent of underwater photography, almost no one really knew what the living whale looked like. In medieval times, they are rendered as spouting sea monsters with claws and tusks, and even as scientific observation of the 17th and 18th centuries began to edge out those fanciful inventions, many strange and misguided representations of the whale persisted into the modern age. Ironically, most of our understanding of these species came from people whose primary purpose was to kill them.
I became increasingly fascinated with this creature and its powerful presence in human imagination. As the year went on, I spent countless hours painting, drawing, and reading about whales, reflecting on their evolution from the snarling sea monster of ancient mariners’ maps to the playful pollywog of 20th-century children's bedrooms.
When autumn came, I made a special trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, once the world's busiest whaling port, chiefly to visit the Whaling Museum and its research library. The library houses hundreds of ship's logs from the 19th century — venerable leather-bound tomes in which the whalers recorded details of every catch and every near miss in looping handwritten scripts. Many of the logs are also illustrated with exotic birds, fish, and whales. Remote islands and archipelagoes, too, are captured in carefully inked profiles.
In one respect, the books are ledgers: systematic recordings of business transactions with the ocean. But the occasionally lavish illustrations elevate some of them to works of art. I visited the museum each day, musing on the historical artifacts and the richly varied depictions of the whale itself. And every day I drew.
I returned to San Francisco with a book full of drawings and a multitude more half-formed in the back of my mind. I thought often of the logbooks: their islands tucked between lines of script, the surrounding words like waves in endless oceans. Now, with those logbooks in my thoughts, I embark on making one of my own. A Book of Lost Latitudes will be a culmination of my odyssey of reading and research, and the images it led me to; this book will be my contribution to the rich legacy of diverse depictions of the giants of the deep.
Risks and challenges
I have left certain details about the book unspecified, since the process of selecting and arranging the drawings will inform the book's final length and shape. My creative process, which tends to be improvisational and spontaneous, continues beyond the drawing and well into the design and editing phases. As for risks, I don't foresee any. This will be my first book and my first Kickstarter, and naturally, I am just a little nervous! But we've all got to do things in life that scare us.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)