Turner records that he was on the ferry between Dover and Calais in a bad storm. When the weather grew more intense, he asked the sailors to lash him to the mast. This meant that he could not be released for three hours while the storm raged.
"I was sure that I would not survive the experience, but determined that if I did, I should record it."
The eventual result was this picture.The single best picture ever painted, Turner's Snowstorm at Sea.
That the greatest artists are the ones who paint the simple visual experience, is illustrated by these quotes:
"Monet is just an eye, but what an eye!" Cézanne.
"Paint exactly what you see. If you got it, you got it. If you haven't; start again." Manet.
"Paint it as you see it, the exact colour and shape." Monet.
"Paint exactly what you see." Pissaro.
"Nature is the only master. She is the one always to be consulted." Pissaro.
"Vélasquez took an oath only to paint what he could see." Max Doerner.
I believe in the supremacy of the eye in art, in the same way that the ear is supreme in music. Painting is a purely visual experience. This applies not only to the appreciation of art, but equally, to its creation, on canvas, and to its conception, in imagination. At the heart of my painting instruction is this:
"Copy slavishly what you see. Then learn to see."
Let's look at this picture. It is clear that this is one of the most intensely observed works of art ever. The colour, the textures, the movement, the drama, the awe had overwhelmed this puny human being on a storm-tossed cork. Everything is truth, all is observation.
Except for one thing. The point of view.
For Turner to see the ship as he painted it, he would have had to be in the storm itself. A bird's eye view, or as it is sometimes called - God's eye view. Does that mean that Turner did not paint what he saw? No.
There is no falsehood in this picture. There is no invention. For this is active seeing. This is the way the artist sees. Wherever our thoughts can go, wherever our dreams transport us, there is God, there is consciousness. And where consciousness is, I can see, and I can paint.
That then, is where Turner was for those three hours. Not tied to the mast, but up in the torn cloud, circling the fighting ship, soaring and battling the currents of the air. And that is where he takes us with him, whenever we give ourselves to this picture.