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Once a physicist: David Rosenthal

David Rosenthal is an artist based in Cordova, Alaska, who specializes in painting and drawing Arctic and Antarctic landscapes

Why did you decide to study physics?
I was interested in science from a young age, and when I got to high school, I spent a lot of time reading about physics. I started out as a physics major at university, but despite my interest and aptitude, I did not do the hard work required and only completed one and a half years before leaving. After going back a few years later, I tried a few other majors, but in the meantime I had started to draw for fun. I did not have as much natural aptitude for art as for science, but I was willing to work at drawing for many hours a day, and have as a result become quite competent. To this day, I draw, paint and study the landscape for most of my waking hours. I wish I had studied physics in the same way!

What drew you to Alaska?
I was always fascinated by the north, so after finally finishing a bachelor's degree that was cobbled together from many fields – the University of Maine at Farmington called it an "interdisciplinary degree" – I headed to Alaska to work in the fishing industry while my landscape work developed. That was in 1977, and I have made my home here in Cordova, Alaska, ever since. Living up here opened my eyes to the many distinctive environments and to the endless variations of great space and ever-changing light. I soon got the opportunity to travel in arctic Alaska and other parts of the Arctic, and I fell in love with the austere, cold landscapes there. The big skies filled with coloured light from the long sunsets and sunrises, the ice and snow reflecting and refracting the light – it all fascinated me.

How did you become involved in the National Science Foundation's Artists and Writers Program?
After my trips to the Alaskan arctic, I became interested in Antarctica and the possibility of experiencing similar scenery on a grander scale. I found a job with a contractor who supported the National Science Foundation's work in Antarctica and went down there for a year, working first as a forklift driver and later in science support. I also began applying to the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program and in 1993 I was selected to spend a summer as the artist based at McMurdo Station (sometimes known as "the only unemployed person in McMurdo"). I ended up spending six southern summers and four southern winters on the ice: one summer and two winters as an artist, and the rest working for the contractor.

What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on landscapes from around my home in Cordova, while I plot ways of getting back to the ice. I was totally consumed by my Antarctic work for about 10 years, and I learned a great deal about light and space. As a result, my work has grown in many ways, technically as well as aesthetically. The feeling one gets from the sight of the Antarctic landscape is beyond my ability to describe in words. I think of it as a religious experience and my paintings are just an attempt to reveal some of the beauty of nature I have found there.

How do you think your physics training has helped you?
Although I cannot claim to be a physicist by any measure, what I did learn has been the key to the success of my work as an artist. I paint my landscapes using only pencil sketches done at the actual locations. The painting of the scene is more the creation of an abstract structure than just the copying of an image. Understanding the properties of light and colour is important, and I learned about light and colour from physics. More importantly, the scientific method has shaped my thinking. Whenever I am involved in trying to create one of my landscapes, I look for the rational explanations behind what I see. If I can understand something, I can paint it.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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Once a physicist

David Rosenthal

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