Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Painting water in landscapes

Marl pond waters reflecting sunny blue skies (painted from my photo reference).

On our sketching trip to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park recently, my friend Karen asked me how she could represent water realistically. Like so many of us, she discovered that water is challenging to draw or paint. Along with the challenges of textures, reflections, and transparency, there is also movement – either from the surface being broken by wind, fish, or birds or by the currents below the surface.

There are a number of good books and online resources that address ways to represent water. I am by no means an expert, but I’d like to share some of the techniques I’ve found that work for me, especially when sketching in the field and trying to get a quick capture.

Water changes colors: blue where it reflects the sky,
 brown where we can see the mud flats below the shallow water.
White sparkles added with a craft knife (painted in the field).
First, I observe the water and what’s happening with wind and reflections, because sometimes it’s hard to separate out the different shapes and colors present.

My motto is to simplify; I look for the broadest colors and shapes, and for a direction of flow.  If I’m painting in watercolor, I start with the most gestural of lines in the lightest color, leaving some white areas. There are almost always white (or very light) bits of sparkling color where the sun’s rays bounce off of the surface. If you leave too much white at the beginnning you can always add a glaze of color over it.

I like to add flowing lines that indicate movement. 
I take the subtle ripples and flow that I see and
exaggerate and simplify them (painted in the field).

Next, I look for the darker colors, which may be reflections or shadows. Many times a body of water is darker near the foreground, becoming lighter as it nears the horizon. There are often many colors in water: it may contain minerals or tannin that color and cloud the water itself, there may be submerged rocks or logs that can be seen through the water, and the surface of the water often reflects the surrounding countryside. Picking up even just a few of these colors adds dimension and depth.

Ripples are circular in shape, spreading outward in broader and broader rings from the point of disturbance.  The angle these ripples are viewed from will determine how elliptical they will be.  Sometimes it's good to practice sketching and painting ellipses or ovals so we can feel more confident when we start depicting water.

You also might find it easier to practice illustrating water from a photo reference - at least nothing is moving! I hope seeing one way that one artist approaches a tricky subject like water is helpful. 
Notice reflections: they are like a mirror image
 of the object they reflect, broken by
horizontal layers of water
(painted in the field).


The water in this canal has dissolved
limestone in it, making it less reflective
and a bit murkier.  I kept the reflections of the
limestone rocks in the water simple -
they are mere suggestions (painted in the field).