Monday Morning Art School: Painting water

“Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons.” (Derek Turner)

Port of Hamburg, Anders Zorn, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden. Even in watercolor, Zorn goes for opacity and energy, not wispy translucency. 
It’s been said that we never stand in the same river twice. It is equally true that we never paint water the same way twice. There are as many answers to the question “how do you paint water?” as there are moments in the day. Water is as changeable as the sky. But there are still some general steps you can follow.
The purple noon’s transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. Streeton’s river is defined by value, and the depth of the painting by atmospheric perspective.
Start by noting the mechanics of the body of water in question. Is there a current? At what point is it in the tide cycle? What underwater obstacles are disrupting the surface? Is the surface smooth or choppy? Is the water silted or clear? What is it reflecting?
Water seeks a flat plane, but there are always light-and-dark contours.  The wind makes patterns on the surface. In watery depths are dark tones. The splash and movement of foam and surf are light and energetic. On a rocky headland, these may appear to be constantly shifting, but in fact they follow rhythmic rules. In rivers, standing waves may appear oddly immutable.  

Hudson River, Logging; Winslow Homer, watercolor, 1891-92, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The water is blocked in solid shapes of different values.
Just as you seek the contours in a still life or portrait, find them in the moving water. Mark them out, dark to light. It’s easy to get repetitive in this phase. Only by careful observation will you avoid that.
The grand canal of Venice (Blue Venice), Edouard Manet, 1875, courtesy Shelbourne Museum. It takes keen observation to paint the pattern of water without being dully repetitive.
Reflections always line up vertically with the object being reflected, but the length of reflections varies. This is liberating: if you get the widths right, you can be creative with the lengths. Generally, the valuesin reflections will be somewhat compressed; lights will be slightly darker than what’s being reflected, and the darks slightly lighter. But that doesn’t mean the chroma will be necessarily reduced—reflections can often surprise with their purity of color. And there’s no rule that says the ocean will be lightest at the horizon. The ocean does anything it wants.
San Cristoforo, San Michele, and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove, Venice; Canaletto, 1722, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art. Even delicate Canaletto paints reflections more positively than simply dragging his brush through the verticals.
Depending on the surface of the water, a reflection can be mirror-like, or it can be in bands, or it can be almost lost in chop. But the overall scene won’t be a mirror image of what’s in the background. Mountains will appear farther away in the reflection. Observe what’s actually there, versus what you expect to see.
I usually block in reflections before I start worrying about the surface of the water. That lets me choose my markmaking at the last minute. It’s easy enough to build the reflections vertically and then drag a brush across them to give the sense of still water. But this is a party trick and can be overdone.
Falls, Montreal River, JEH MacDonald, 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s an unusual angle, looking down from the top, but we understand what we’re seeing because of the ferocity of MacDonald’s brushwork.
Instead, use brushwork to imply the vast energy of water. Long, fluent strokes can indicate ebb and flow. Short, energetic strokes will show chop. Opaque or impasto paint can indicate the dance and verve of crashing waves better than delicate transparency.
Lake Ladoga, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1871, courtesy Russian Museum. We can see the underwater rocks along the shore.
Shallow water, where you can see to the bottom, is difficult to paint. The ground influences the color of the water, and you must balance underwater details with surface reflections. Shallow water running over rocks in a river can be very erratic; to get the sense of that requires careful, slow observation.
Your assignment this week is to paint water. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can paint outdoors without breaking your lockdown rules, please—by all means—avail yourself of that opportunity. For the rest of us (and those of you who are still locked down in winter) a photo is another option.
I can’t wait to see what you do!

Paintings from Mother Russia

Silence, 1890, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy
If we think about Russian artists at all, we tend to remember 20th century expatriates like Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. But before the Russian Empire collapsed in civil war in 1917, it had a fine tradition of landscape painting. 
Trees in the Snow, 1908, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy
My late student, Gwendolyn Linn, was a fan of these classical Russian landscape painters. From her I learned about Ilya Repin, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Isaac Levitan, Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Vereshchagin, and others. Many of these painters were members of the Peredvizhniki (or Wanderers or Itinerants in English). Formed in rebellion to the rigid Academic standards of the day, the group eventually became the status quo.
Yesterday I got a text from a student reminding me of one of the Peredvizhniki painters, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy. Dubovskoy was born into a family of Don Cossacks in Novocherkassk in 1859. He studied from 1877 to 1881 at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. In 1911, he was appointed a professor there.
The Waterfall Imatra, 1893, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy
Dubovskoy died in 1918, a pivotal year in Russian history. It was the end of four years of World War and near the start of five years of civil war. The population of St. Petersburg was in free-fall: it dropped from 2.3 million in 1917 to 722,000 by the end of 1920. By the beginning of 1918 German troops were so close to the city that the Bolshevik government abandoned it. One shudders to imagine the life (and death) of a middle-aged artist when all the former luxuries had been condemned and reality was a struggle to find scarce food and fuel.
First Snow, 1910, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy
But when the Peredvizhniki  painters were in their heyday, that was all still in the distant future. They mined the myths of Mother Russia, so their work is a blend of genre, history and nationalist painting. It can be mawkishly sentimental, but just as often is profound and arresting in its singular beauty.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Seven days of wood smoke and crackling leaves—Arkhip Kuindzhi

A Birch Grove, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1880
I’m in Maine for my last 2013 painting workshop! The frost isn’t quite on the pumpkin (at least not in Rockland or Rochester) but autumn is in the air. I’m leaving some wonderful fall landscapes for you.
I never give enough attention to the great Russian painters, an oversight I can’t correct here since they deserve a full week of their own. But today I’ll content myself with giving you a rather unusual birch grove by Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Kuindzhi frequently painted the play of light through trees. He painted birches countless times, although this is the only nocturne I’m familiar with (although this being Russia, it could just be late afternoon in late October). His paintings are often simplified, stylized, and monumental, which gives an unreal eeriness to his work.

Kuindzhi was orphaned young and grew up terrifically poor. He was forced to find his own art instruction. As an outsider, he was a natural to join the Peredvizhniki—“wanderers” or â€śitinerants”—a group of Russian realists who, locked out of the formal Academy, formed an artist’s cooperative.  Like the Canadian Group of Seven, these painters used landscape painting to make a case for the beauty and power of their native land.
Autumn Impassibility of Roads, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1872
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!