Monday Morning Art School: perspective of boats

Don’t fall into the trap of drawing what you know instead of what you see.
The Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, Claude Monet. All three waterlines are parallel to the horizon.
I prefer painting from a floating dock, where I’m at eye-level with the boats regardless of the tide. However, on Friday, I found myself up on the wall looking across Camden Harbor. That creates a different perspective.
The horizon line in a drawing is the viewer’s eye level, regardless of where the viewer is standing. At the top of Mount Rainier, your horizon line is around 14,410 feet above sea level, and everything is below you. If you’re swimming in the Caribbean, your horizon line is about three inches above sea level and everything but the sharks are above you.
I explained basic perspective in this post about drawing clouds; the exact same rules apply to boats, except that everything is flipped over. We can see down into objects that are at our feet, but not into objects at the same level that are far away. The farther away the object is, the more horizontal our gaze is as we look at it. Our measly 5 or 6 feet in height is nothing compared to the distance across. 
When a boat is a few hundred feet away in the water, it’s for all intents and purposes at eye level. Its waterline is almost absolutely flat, regardless of whether you’re looking at its side, transom, or bow.
The Seine at Argenteuil, 1872, Alfred Sisley. Although it’s also from towpath height, Sisley included more foreground, creating the sense that we are looking down into the Seine.
During the 1870s and 1880s Argenteuil, northwest of Paris on the Seine, became an important painting location for the Impressionists. They immortalized its bridges and boats from every conceivable angle.
We can infer Monet’s point of view in the top painting as being about equal to the house across the river. In other words, he was standing on a towpath. That allows us to see into the boat slightly, as we’re at mast height to it and it’s close to the near bank. We cannot see into the far boats at all. Note that the far bank and the waterlines of the far boats are parallel to the horizon. The bridge, which reaches across the river to us, is not.
Alfred Sisley’s painting is from the same height, but he’s given us more foreground, and therefore the sense of looking down into the water. But while the tree in the river is definitely below us, the boats are not. Again, their waterlines are parallel to the horizon. The river bends, and the land curves away, but the curve is very gradual.
Boating, 1874, Édouard Manet. Here we’re looking straight down into the boat from impossibly close quarters.
We are definitely looking down into Édouard Manet’s pleasure boat in his 1872 painting done on the same river. Manet has us practically standing on the rail looking down into the well of the boat. The horizon isn’t even visible. It would be yards above the boaters’ heads.
An example of incorrectly drawn boats.
Ignoring these rules results in the most common error I see in painting boats. This is from an example I picked up on the internet. The boats are close to the horizon but we still seem to be looking down into them. In fact, the closest boat is at about the angle of Manet’s Boating. This is an impossibility, as the three masterpieces from Argenteuil have demonstrated.
This happens frequently with painters unaccustomed to boats. I think it is a case of painting what we think we know vs. what we see. We know that boats have form, therefore they must have perspective, too. Well, they do, but it’s very subtle from the distance we usually see them.

The greatest painter of rain

The greatest landscape artist of the 19th century wasn’t a Frenchman. He was Hiroshige, or so his western contemporaries thought.

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge At Atake, 1856, Hiroshige.
As I was walking to the post office yesterday, a miniscule rain shower spattered in the woods next to me.  It lasted no more than a second. Being modern, I didn’t recognize it as an omen. Despite the forecast, by midafternoon it was misting heavily enough that no outdoor painting was possible.
We’ve had a lot of rain this spring in the northeast. The St. Lawrence River is full, so they’re holding water back in Lake Ontario, which is in turn flooding parts of Toronto and Rochester. Here in Maine the creeks and rivers patter loudly and joyfully down to the sea. And still it continues to rain; it’s on the forecast for the rest of this week.
Night Rain On Karasaki, Hiroshige
The 19th century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige often used mist and rain as motifs in his compositions. He worked in a genre called ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world.” After Commodore Perry forced Japan opento Westerners in 1854, ukiyo-e was exported to the west. It had a profound influence on Western painting.
Hiroshige was the last master of ukiyo-e. Born in 1797 in Edo (Tokyo), he was left orphaned at the age of 12. His father was the samurai fire fighter of Edo Castle, and this responsibility passed to the son. Although he went on to study and work full time as an artist,he never shirked his duty, eventually passing it along through his family.
Two Men On A Sloping Road In The Rain, Hiroshige
Shortly after his parents’ deaths, he began studying art with the master Utagawa Toyohiroof the Utagawa school. This exposed him to western ideas of perspective, which had been imported in books carried to Japan by Dutch traders. The Utagawa school pioneered landscape painting as an independent genre.
Hiroshage worked with a sketchbook, traveling to other locations to assemble ideas and motifs for his woodcuts. Although he was prolific and famous, he was never wealthy; at one point his wife had to sell clothing and ornamental combs to support his work.
White Rain, Shono, 1833-34, Hiroshige
Hiroshage worked within the narrow genre of meisho-e, or “pictures of famous places.” In a sense, these were the predecessors of picture postcards.
Japonisme took the 19th century world by storm after the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. Oriental bric-a-brac poured into western Europe. James Whistler reportedly discovered Japanese prints in a tea room near London Bridge. Claude Monet saw them used as wrapping paper. James Tissot and Edgar Degas collected ukiyo-e. Mary Cassatt was an open and avid admirer and imitator of the style. Vincent van Gogh famously copied two of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which were among his collection of ukiyo-e prints.
And it wasn’t just the visual arts. Gilbert and Sullivan produced their comic masterpiece, The Mikado, in 1885. Japanese gardens became the rage. By the end of the century, Hiroshige was being referred to as the greatest painter of landscapes of the 19th century.
Evening Shower At Nihonbashi Bridge, 1832, Hiroshige
Hiroshige died at the age of 62 during a cholera epidemic in Edo. Just before his death, he wrote:
I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.

Sadly, the same cultural exchange that sparked so much artistic development in Europe also spelled the end of ukiyo-e. The rapid Westernization following the Meiji Restoration found photography vying with traditional woodblock printing. By the 1890s the tradition was, more or less, dead.