Pamela Talese, an artist who has made a career, at least part of it, painting the tugs and fireboats that visit the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s dry docks for repair, would be the first to acknowledge that the historic Navy yard, where she has had a studio since 2008, is changing. “I fear it’s going to become the next High Line,” she said.

But even she was surprised when we had to make way for a tour bus on a recent afternoon. “This is unusual,” she conceded.

“It’s an interesting mix of the new sustainability and the old polluting industries,” she added as we strolled past IceStone, a company that recycles glass into high design.”Even though I’m a vegetarian, I prefer the old industries—visually.”

Ms. Talese doesn’t only paint boats. Her last show included a rusted crane, a Williamsburg Con Ed plant in the process of demolition, a painting whose title —”Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse After The Fire”—pretty much says it all, and the defunct Domino Sugar plant on the Brooklyn waterfront.

What rescues her art from becoming what she describes as “Ruin Porn” (“I don’t like to paint the Gowanus Canal,” she said in her own defense. “There are about 18 artists covering that territory.”) is the affection for her subject matter that seems to spring from every brush stroke. There’s also a wistfulness that somehow manages to imbue objects that aren’t only inanimate but unapologetically functional with subtle emotion.

“It has to do with history and scale,” she explained, as we turned a corner and encountered the passengers from the tour bus, now crowded onto a viewing platform overlooking one of the dry docks. “What I’m very interested in is the accumulation of detail over time, and sometimes the corrosion.”

She paints “en plein air”—in other words, outdoors—rather than from photographs. She does so alongside the vessels’ skippers and repair crews. “It’s honestly easier to paint from life,” she explained. “When the light changes what you thought is flat curves. You develop a visual relationship with your subject.”

As well as with the people refurbishing it. “This is what happens,” she went on. “The crew comes by and tells me what I have wrong. Or they say, ‘Are you going to paint me into the picture?’ I say, ‘Are you willing to stand here for hours on end?'”

When they get used to seeing the artist at her easel day after day, and discover that Ms. Talese is as devoted to their ships in her own way as they are, a relationship often develops. In November 2009, when the USS New York—a futuristic amphibious Navy transport craft that used steel salvaged from the World Trade Center in its construction—made its way past the World Trade Center for the first time and gave the site a 21-gun salute, the artist was aboard the Sturgeon Bay, a U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaking tug that was part of the flotilla. She had become friends with the boat’s skipper when she painted the tug while it was in dry dock during the summer of 2007.

And just the week before we met, she had been invited to take a ride aboard “The Bravest,” a new New York City Fire Department fireboat. “It’s because of hanging around,” she explained modestly, “and being this maritime geek. This is my
world. This is my community.”

Well, perhaps not entirely. Ms. Talese grew up on the Upper East Side. Her father is the journalist and author Gay Talese. He was hoping she would follow in his footsteps. “My father really wanted me to be a journalist and work for the New York
Times,” she remembers. She wanted to paint album covers for rock bands. “I knew the only way to avoid that was to leave the country.”

She moved to Paris in her early 20s, worked as an editorial assistant for Vogue—”You realized you didn’t care that much about clothes”—and eventually had what sounds like a not atypical twentysomething “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” meltdown. Her mother, the editor and publisher Nan Talese, on her way to Frankfurt for a book fair, made an emergency stop in Paris, during which she asked Ms. Talese a question that any young person in search of his or her destiny might want to consider: “What do you do where time stands still?”

The answer was paint.

She returned to the U.S. and enrolled at the Art Students League. “Part of me really wanted to do this thing,” she said. “Another part of me thought this is really a terrible idea —the financial constraints.” Nonetheless, she started painting. And painting. Ms. Talese doesn’t usher from an unambitious family. “My mother asked me, ‘When are you going to show?’ I explained to her, ‘I thought I discovered an island. It’s actually a continent. I don’t know how long this is going to take.’

“It’s actually been a long road,” she conceded.

Her first show was in 1997, but for much of the time she was painting she was also employed as an interior designer. “One day I went to paint a building and it was torn down,” she said of a structure in Coney Island. The year was 2000. She went to her boss, the interior designer David Kleinberg. “I said, ‘I hate to have this conversation, but I have to quit my job now. I have to document the things before they’re torn down.'”

Ms. Talese said that in the wake of 9/11 she was frequently hassled by law enforcement while trying to paint her favorite subject matter—crumbling infrastructure. “One guy said, ‘For all I know you’re sending your drawings to al Qaeda.’ I said, ‘I’m not that good.'” Boats and demolished buildings constitute only a portion of her oeuvre. She’s also done a series of paintings titled “Sugar and Fat” that will the subject of a show at 350 Bleecker St. starting Oct. 25. And she’s participating in an open studio tour at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Oct. 6 and 7.

If you can imagine a pink Hostess Sno Ball painted with the devotion of a Dutch still life (one of her works is, indeed, a Hostess Sno Ball) you begin to get a sense of her crullersand-cupcakes period. It came about both because of her affinity for sweets and because, come winter, it gets too cold to paint outdoors.

The final part of our Navy Yard tour occurred from the roof of the building where her studio is located. In the distance you could see the gleaming Midtown skyline and on the East River, the New York Fire Department’s $2.4 million, jet-powered fireboat “The Bravest”—the same one on which Ms. Talese recently hitched a ride. As sleek as it was, it apparently left her cold visually. “I probably won’t paint it,” she said. “It’s a little too James Bond for me.”