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!

Monday Morning Art School: Reflections

Time for art class. Get out your pencils and get started.

Reflections off American Eagle in Stonington, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
Artists often trip up on the stochastic processes: things that have a general pattern but can’t be predicted precisely. We tend to either ignore the pattern altogether or overstate it into rigid regularity. These are everywhere in nature: in the distribution of leaves on trees, wildflowers in fields, the cleaving of rocks, and the behavior of water.
The surface of water is one of the most fascinating and difficult things to paint. It can be utterly still, or random and choppy, or it can create orderly patterns of surface ripples or waves. When it hits an obstacle like a ledge or the shore, its surface behavior is dictated by what’s underneath. In a rainstorm, fresh water floats on the surface of salt water, adding another pattern.
I like to sketch what the surface of water is doing. This changes quickly, so it helps to do this in a fast-working medium like pencil or watercolor. I did the above sketch while anchored off Stonington last week, but you don’t need an ocean for this exercise. There’s standing water almost everywhere: in ponds, lakes, or streams.
Light reflects identically but opposite. That’s immutable. What changes with water is the shape of the surface.
Reflection involves two rays – an incoming (incident) ray and an outgoing (reflected) ray. Physics tells us that the angles are identical but on opposite sides of a tangent. This is immutable. It’s why reflections that do not run in a generally-straight line down to the viewer are always wrong.
If water were perfectly still and perfectly reflective, its surface would be a mirror. Two factors prevent that. First, some rays of light are absorbed, and not reflected. This is true in both directions. Some of the light from the sky is absorbed. At the same time, we can see some of the color (or objects) under the water. Furthermore, the surface is never flat; it’s wavy or worse, just like a fun-house mirror.
The surface of the water at the Isaac H. Evans’ berth in Rockland.
In most cases, a sea wave’s surface is also windblown and irregular. That makes its surface infinitely varied. Rays are reflected at many different angles, radically disrupting the image. This gives the surface of the sea or its spray a solid or matte appearance.
Where we see directly into water, it’s the least reflective. That can either mean looking straight down or into the face of the wave. These surfaces are most likely green or brown in tone, depending on what’s underneath. The tops of the waves reflect the sky, but the sky isn’t the same color in all directions. Other surfaces reflect what’s in the distance—moonlight, other boats, structures, trees. Often these last reflections take the form of rings.
In relatively still water, reflections are irregularly elliptical.
In relatively still water, reflections are generally elliptical, although those ellipses may join in long strings or have vibration interference depending on the surface breeze. As the water becomes less still, water generally sorts itself into waves with identifiable patterns.
Waves can range from very tiny ripples to towering structures nearly a hundred feet tall. Most of us see waves as they approach the shore. There their behavior changes radically. They tend to pile up as the water gets shallower, effectively growing taller and slowing down. As they break, all predictability ends. The spray from a breaking wave can and does go anywhere.
The light stream is fresh water on top of salt water during a rainstorm.
Your assignment, then, is to find a body of standing water somewhere near you, and draw or paint the reflections. Don’t worry about the setting; we are only concerned with the behavior of the waves you are seeing.

I’ve been looking forward to this!

My website is online as of today. It’s not a finished piece of work, and has been beset with difficulties, including a hijacked URL, but here it is:
The website has an RSS feed from this blog, so I went back and captured an image of it with this post repeating itself. Call this an inspiration from childhood, from visiting Lucas Samaras’ “Room No.2” (popularly known as the mirrored room) at the Albright-Knox and studying my endless reflections.

One of Lucas Samaras’ reflecting rooms, sans me.
The web designer isn’t totally finished, so she doesn’t want herself tagged, but she’s doing an awesome job!