Lilli Rethi

Lilli Rethi is one of my construction-artist heros. According to the MTA,

During the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the early 1960s, a petite woman could be found weaving her way among the burly bridge builders with her drawing board and art supplies in hand. Artist and illustrator Lili Rethi became so familiar to workers building the bridge that they built her a little shed on site to shelter her from the wind and cold.

She particularly loved depicting heavy construction projects. As a young woman, she disguised herself as a boy and sneaked inside a Belgian mine to do some sketching.  She also drew shipyards, canals and bridges under construction in Europe.

Rethi, born in Vienna in 1894, came to the United States in 1939 to cover the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair for the Illustrated London News and remained here. In addition to sketching, she also illustrated more than 50 books over the course of her career.

As a child, one of my favorite books was Manic 5 – The building of the Daniel Johnson Dam. Lilli did the illustrations for this book. Here is the text from the jacket flap:

It is 703 feet high at its center arch, 4,310 feet long, and weighs approximately 6,000,000 tons. Building it required the services of over 3,500 workers, and consumed 15,000,000 bags of cement, 1,700,000 tons of sand, 2,500,000 tons of rock, and 72,000,000 gallons of water. The world’s biggest multiple arch dam, it is a dramatic part of Canada’s Manicouagan-Outardes Rivers hyrdroelectric project. Originally called Manic 5, it was officially renamed that Daniel Johnson Dam in honor of Quebec’s late Prime Minister.

This is the story of the building of that dam. The drama, the beauty, and the awesome magnitude of the undertaking are captured in these pages in sixty-four drawings by Lilli Rethi, an artist whose work, said the Christian Science Monitor, “pleases the technically trained man but at the same time holds the full romance of engineering in its grasp.”

Lilli’s drawings inspired my lifelong fascination with heavy construction. Back in the day, I would build my own Manic 5s in creek bed behind the house using Tonka trucks and sticks and mud. Now I paint massive earth movers on large canvas frames.

The Golden Gate Bridge

September 30, 1937

To the Honorable Board of Directors
Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District


I have the honor to transmit herewith the final report of the Chief Engineer on the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, covering the history of the project from its inception to its completion and including a description of the technical and other phases of the work.

Respectfully submitted,

Joseph B. Strauss
Chief Engineer
Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District

So reads the first page of The Golden Gate Bridge, Report of the Chief Engineer to the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District California. This book was a commemorative souvenir for the people involved in the construction of the bridge. Its text describes the history of the bridge, from the first proposal, through design and construction. The book and the bridge both include many art deco motifs from the era.

As a young boy, I spent hours on the living room floor, pouring over my grandfather’s copy, looking at each construction photo and carefully examining the blueprints. The book inspired a lifelong fascination with construction and engineering.

As a child I would build suspension bridges from dowel and string. Now in mid life, I am using oils and brushes to paint the construction scenes I imagined so many years ago.

December 6, 2015

Finally got some time to paint again. Did the front wheel of the dump truck and most of the warm reflections. Also added an orange running light.


This session I used two strings – a cool neutral for the chrome and a warm for the reflections. The cool string was based a mixture of Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Cadmium Yellow Medium, lightened with Titanium White. The warm string consisted of varying amounts of Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Red Medium, and Cadmium Yellow Medium, mixed into the neutral string.

For this painting I’ve mainly been using Da Vinci Top Acryl brights. These are fairly stiff synthetic brushes that hold a sharp, chiseled point. They work really well with the water miscible paints, especially when I need to use a brush full of solvent (in this case water) to sharpen up an edge. The brushes are also good for modulating the tone of lighter paints on a black canvas. Since they are really stiff, I can use them to scrub the paint to allow more of the black to show through when I need a darker tone.