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My version of Jacques Cousteau

I don’t know if that was the appeal of the great unknown blue space underwater or the fact that after each episode the next on TV programme was Chip n’ Dale cartoon, but The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau is the ultimate childhood memory and Jacques Cousteau – one of the most inspiring figures in my world.

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau is a TV documentary consisting of 36 episodes. It aired first time on TV from 1968 until 1976 and then continued with newer episodes. Each episode was about a different sea or ocean, showing how the Cousteau crew got there, why they go there, what is the process on the ship while getting there, who lives in the waters and how they manage to get underwater and explore the world there.

It was fascinating, and I believe Jacques Cousteau is one of the grandest visionaries. Jacques Cousteau, June 1910 – June 1997, was a French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. Cousteau is credited with improving the Aqua-Lung design which gave birth to the open-circuit scuba technology used today.

The first episode of the documentary series showed the Conshelf III project, an experimental underwater habitat-based over 100m deep in the Mediterranean Sea. Six divers lived in the specially constructed base for three weeks, paving the way for the future development of saturation diving. The programme was incredibly successful and considered as epic – a good way to start off documentary series and lock funding for the next episodes.

I remember that in one of the episodes Jacques Cousteau was doing an experiment to test the behaviour of sharks. I explicitly remember that he challenged the notion that sharks attack because they want to eat humans or other living beings. In my memory, it was a proposition to show that sharks don’t really have anything against humans, in particular. After some scientific observations and diving with sharks, Jacques Cousteau did a more simple test to analyse sharks behaviour. He threw a wooden crate – a non-alive, non-moving object – into the water where a shark was nearby. The shark immediately swam towards it with its jaw wide open and drastically destroyed it with its gazillion teeth by trying to eat it. That was a way how Jacques Cousteau chose to prove his theory that sharks are simply curious. They use their mouth to understand and by biting something they realise what it is they have met. They will attack anything to understand what it is. It is kind of an unfortunate introductory style by destroying your object of interest – not necessarily having aggressive or violent interest.

A couple of years ago I made a few paintings about sea life. I think it was the first time the underwater world appeared in my art so straightforward.

Underwater world by Diana Dzene, four oil paintings, 2017.

However, blue (and its variations) paint tube for me is the most bought tube. And water is the biggest inspiration for me and present almost in all my paintings. Now that I was remembering the Cousteau documentaries, it might be that it had a greater impact on me then I ever realised.

Since I am studying various painting techniques, I’m also learning to paint better portraits. After examining the skull, the shades and angles, the proportions and forms – first by pencil and then with paints – I’m trying to actually depict someone who could look like someone I intended to paint.

When thinking about whom to paint, it did come naturally to paint someone who inspires me. So I chose Jacques Cousteau. And I did start with an easier task of painting older person who has multiple experiences and thinking lines on their faces, making it easier to build.

My first attempt is Cousteau looking up, hence the face seems shorter than usual and has a slightly different shape because of the angle from below and the line of the horizon being below the face.

My second attempt, after studying the wrongs and rights of the first one, was a closer take. Jacques Cousteau is older there, and the face has a different position + there’s the signature red hat.

Jacques Cousteau by Diana Dzene, oil on wood, 50cm x 80cm, 2021.

Both paintings are very radiant and very positive. I would like to think – just like Jacques Cousteau was.

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