KEY OBSERVATIONS WHEN PAINTING WATER
It has been stated that there is no better medium to capture the look and feel of water than watercolor paint. Its fluidity and ability to produce soft translucent washes is certainly suited to the subject. A question that I am often asked by students in my workshops is “how do you paint water?” As with so many questions about painting technique, there is never a simple answer. So with this in mind, I have attempted in this article to explain some of the approaches to painting water - but it by no means covers everything related to capturing the character of water using watercolors.
The topic of ‘painting water’ covers many subjects - puddles, dams, creeks, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and the ocean all fall into this category and when you look at these in conjunction with weather effects, time of day, angle of view, you begin to see how broad and complex this subject is.
So the challenge when painting water is to look closely at the water, see all that is happening, interpret it, then work out how to simplify it and represent it in your painting. There is an important point to make here - it is more important to capture the ‘feel’ of the water rather than every single detail of it. For example - capturing the ‘feeling’ of gentle ripples in a pond on a cool overcast day is more important that capturing every colour, tone and reflection perfectly. Watercolour painting, to me, is about capturing the essence of something in a simple manner rather than labouring over the minute details to give exact realistic accuracy. Having said this let me reiterate - it is important to “see everything then to simplify”. In other words see everything, but don’t paint everything you see. Rembrandt expressed the sentiment (not in these exact words) “when painting, it is just as important what you leave out as what you put in”.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR, OR HOW TO SEE
When standing in front of your subject you need to observe some major aspects of it. Following is the four major questions to ask yourself:
What tone is the water?
Is it darker or lighter than the main objects (such as boats, wharfs, buildings or anything else you may have in your subject). In essence all you are doing is working out what general tone to pitch the water by using something else in the picture as a reference. Of course, the water may have a variety of tones across its surface, so maybe a more accurate question may be “what tonal range does the water cover”?
Are there any reflections and what are they like?
Reflections can play an important role in the representation of water and these are covered in more detail later in the article. For now, you just need to observe if there are any reflections. Also, take note of whether they are soft and blurred, or quite distinct and crisp. Also ask if the reflection is a dark reflection against light water or a light reflection against dark water?
Is the water calm or rippled?
If it is rippled, squint and look at the ripples and decide if they are soft edged or sharp.
What colour or colours are in the water?
Is the water reflecting the colour of the sky (which it often does) or is it a completely different colour? More importantly, what colour will you make it to fit into the colour scheme of your painting?
Obviously if you are working plein air the situation can change from one moment to the next, but you need to make these observations and answer these questions to give you an idea of where to start.
If on the other hand you are working from a photograph, you have the luxury of the moment frozen in time. You are able to study closely the character of the water. Beware though, there is a danger when working from photographs - you need to be careful that you do not become a slave to the information the photo has given you. I am certainly not against working from photos and find the camera an essential tool in the production of much of my work, but you must treat photos as a source of information to be interpreted and not slavishly copied. Be aware that the camera does not see things the same as the human eye. It simplifies the world according to its lens and electronic programming and settings. When we work from photographs we must be aware of this and use it for information, but not let it dictate the final result of the painting. The photo freezes the action for us, which is very useful, but this freezing of action may also cause us to overwork our paintings. STOP! BEWARE! It is a slippery slope and one to avoid.
Reflections in water can add a beautiful sense of movement and rhythm to you painting and really add a sense of realism to your depiction of water. The understanding of how reflections work will allow you to see reflections better and consequently paint them more convincingly and with more confidence. I have used actual photos rather than paintings to illustrate some of the aspects of reflections so that you see them as they actually occur rather than interpreted in a painting.
Reflections are not shadows.
It may sound as though I am stating the obvious, but many people do not realize that these are completely two separate and unrelated natural occurrences. Shadows move and change shape throughout the day as the sun moves. They behave in the same way a shadow on a hard surface does, except that they lie across the surface of the water. If the water is clear and shallow, the shadow can be seen on the bottom. Shadows are also more obvious on murky or muddy water. Reflections on the other hand are always directly below the object. See Figure A.
Water acts as a large reflector or mirror,
but, the reflected image is not a perfect replica or an upside down (inverted) version of the subject. Depending on your position in relation to the subject, you may see under it in the reflection (as in the boat on the far right in Figure B). You can test this principle by putting a mirror on the floor and standing back from it. Compare the subject with its reflection. Then move closer or further back and see how the reflection has changed. Exactly the same principle applies to reflections in water.
Tones are not exactly replicated in the reflection.
Generally, the tonal range of the reflection is not as great as that of the object. Read that line again to get it clear in your mind. In other words, a white object is generally not as light in the reflection and a black object is not quite as dark in the reflection. Many factors affect this including weather or atmospheric conditions, but direct observation will reveal to you how dramatic this tonal difference is on any given day. If you know what to look for, you will see it. This is clearly illustrated in Figures B and E. Squint your eyes and compare the tones of the boats with their reflections and you will see the difference.
The tone of a reflection is relative to its surrounding.
To illustrate what I am saying here look at Figures C and D. Each photograph consists of a white boat with a reflection. In C the reflection is clearly darker than the surrounding water and in D it is clearly lighter than the surrounding water. It all depends on what else is being reflected and you must identify these tones from the beginning.
Colours are more muted in a reflection.
Colours never have quite the intensity or richness of the source of the reflection - see Figure E.
The length of a reflection will be longer if there are ripples in the water.
Note that it will also be a broken reflection. In essence, it is because the large mirror (the water) is bent or broken. If you could look at it from the side, it would look a little like corrugated iron. The sides pointing towards the subject will reflect it while the other side will reflect the surrounding and often the sky. Hence, the reflection is a series of alternating surrounding and subject reflections. See Figures F and G.
Having absorbed this information on the characteristics of reflections, does not mean that when doing a watercolour painting each of these elements must be perfectly painted. Direct observation is always best and these facts are here only to help you be a better observer. We always see things more clearly when we have an idea of what we are looking for. I once again come back to the important statement made earlier in this article “See everything, then simplify.”
A GUIDE TO PAINTING WATER
Now that we have discussed what to look for and how reflections work, we come to the nuts and bolts of the question “How do you paint water?”
Answering that is like trying to answer that age-old question “How long is a piece of string?” The problem is in the fact that water is never the same on two occasions. You just need to walk along the same stretch of beach in the morning and the afternoon to realize that fact. We would all like one simple formula to paint all water scenes, but it is up to us as the Artist to observe, interpret and then problem solve to work out how best to paint it. Sounds scary I know, but it is what we need to do to be an Artist. Painting is not about remembering formulas, but learning the skills to be able to work out the answers yourself. Having said that, I can still give you some fundamental principles that will help you on your way to paint water more successfully.
Presuming that you have made the observations already covered in this article and you are ready to paint. Below is a list of hints to help you on your way -
Do not overwork your painting – In other words try to keep detail to a minimum and your number of layers of paint limited. Some would say that three layers is the maximum and this is a good idiom to work by, but is by no means a hard and fast rule. If you can capture the water in one layer then that is even better, but not always possible.
If you have soft edges or blurred reflections then paint wet into wet. In this case you are painting the water in one go. Use horizontal and/or vertical brush strokes as the scene suggests.
If the reflections are quite clear and distinct then a drier and more direct approach may be necessary. Paint the reflections in sections (almost like colouring in) on dry paper, but don’t be afraid to let one section bleed a little into the next as this will help give the water a spontaneous and fluid look.
When painting a reflection always try to do it in one direct application. Trying to make corrections or over paint will only end in disaster. It is best to leave it with a slight inaccuracy and a fresh look.
With complicated reflections, squint to get rid of detail to help you simplify.
Make sure you paint ripples so that they obey the rules of perspective, ie they become further apart and larger as they come towards you.
If the reflections look to busy or noisy, put a glaze or wash over them to knock them back a little.
Leave some unpainted sections of white paper if you wish to create a little sparkle.
Remember, just because the water looks a particular way at that moment does not mean you need to duplicate it - decide what would be best for your painting.
It is is better to have a slightly unfinished look to the water than to overwork it.
In closing, look at the paintings in this article and see how different the water in each is.
One of the most important things for you as a painter to do is to realize that you must not be confined by rules. In my opinion there is only one rule in painting and that is “if it works, then do it”. Use this article as a guide to help you, but don’t be confined to what has been written. Not everything can be covered in such a small article and I encourage you to take the plunge and experiment. Find out what works for you.