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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Painting Water

Painted water in its purest form is very often quite abstract,
especially when seen up close.
The abstract qualities of painted water are especially noticeable
when broken apart into individual works as illustrated in the
three images above. The lower images are as painted by the artist.
Few subjects are more difficult for the amateur painter, and perhaps even for professionals, than the realistic rendering of water. I've painted water at various times over the years, yet on each occasion I find myself learning something new and refining my technique. Few artists, myself included, would boast of being "experts" at painting water. In fact I can think of only a handful of painters down through the history of art to whom I'd attach such a label--Claude Monet (below), Winslow Homer, Camille Pissarro, and perhaps two or three others. Why so few? One reason is the tendency artists have of painting only the simplest, manifestation of smooth, standing water requiring little skill or effort. Another is the tendency to render what I call "shorthand" or symbolic aqueous abbreviations we've all come to recognize and accept as meaning water rather than accurate representations of the substance itself.

Water Lilies, Claude Monet
Brown Trout
Stuart Brocklehurst
Water is clear--colorless. Unfortunately, paint-ers do not have in their paint boxes a tube of paint marked "colorless." Therefore, artists are bound to add color based upon the en-vironment (sky and weather conditions), that which is on the water, that which is in the water, that which is under the water, or that which is near the water (as seen in reflections). Stuart Brocklehurst's Brown Trout (left) is a good example of three of these factors. As if all that weren't challenge enough, water is seldom still. Though, as mentioned before, to observe a lot of painted water you might think otherwise. Water is easily disturbed, by wind, by gravity, and by that which is in and on the it. Therefore, painters are expected to render the effects of any of these factors as the need arises in their work. Even the purest, rend-erings of water (top) assumes a blue sky and the aftermath of the water having been dis-turbed in some manner. The little chart below gives some indication as to the complexity water imposes on the painter.

In its purest form, pure abstraction.
One could almost teach a lesson on "how to paint water" based purely on the works of the French Impressionist, Claude Monet. Few artists painted water so well, so often, and in so many different manifestations. His Regatta at Argenteull (below-top) was painted in 1872 at the height of the Impressionist revolution in Paris. The style allowed Monet a great deal of technical freedom, yet did not free him from an accurate depiction. Many of the earliest Impressionist paintings involved water and the artists' attempt to render it as simply as possible within the realm of natural appearance. Monet's water, whether on a river or in the sea, looks just as "wet" as any photo-based rendering, yet it was painted on the site, based upon what Monet saw as well as felt.

The most important rule in painting water
--paint what you see, not what you think or recall.
Going with the Flow
Let me present two streams of water. The first, (right) is a typical attempt by a beginning painter similar to what virtually every art instructor has seen hundreds of times. It's an uninspired shorthand image of blue water flowing among various topographical variations. In this case, even the sky and the water have no color relationship and no attempt has been render reflections in the water. Not only is the stream uninteresting, the entire land-scape is boring as hell. When the water is the center of interest, it had better be some damn fine water. Not that this is in any way a fair comparison, but now look at the stream below by the professional land-scape painter, Tom Wheeler. The most striking difference is the fact that we get a feel for being in the water rather than the map-like effect as seen at right. Second, the sky is not particularly blue and neither is the water. Third, though the stream makes its presence felt, the real content in the painting is what's in the water--the variously colored rocks. Beyond that, though the trees and shoreline are painted in some detail, they are not rendered in any great detail as reflections other than color values. Yet it is the cloudy whiteness of the sky which we see most reflected in the water. I must say, I'd have been tempted at add a fly fisherman somewhere in the scene, but the painting is so well done as not to require a more precise point of interest.

Painting of rocks & water at the Lewis River,
in Washington, Tom Wheeler.
Undoubtedly the most difficult challenge any painter might take on is painting water with in watercolor. Watercolor, by its very nature is an unforgiving medium. Minor errors are tolerated, but not easily, and not at all if they go unrecognized. Once the pigments begin to stain the paper, corrections are seldom possible. Later attempts to make corrections are usually quite noticeable when dry. Sarah Hattan's Shore 8 (below) is an exciting example of an artist equally at home with the medium and in-the-disturbed-water color variations the scene demands. Note the almost total lack of blue.

Shore 8, a watercolor by Sarah Hattan
As do most painters today, I cheat. I take a digital shortcut in using the frozen element of photography to "nail down" the color and details. This permits me to take on the purely abstract element in the body of water (top), allowing me to very precisely paint what I see...and only what I see as to ripples, waves, color, reflections, and items that may be in, on, or under the water. The Phoenix Hall, is located on the Uji River just southeast of Kyōto, Japan (below). The mirror smoothness of the water made it relatively easy to paint; but the highly detailed temple and the resulting upside-down mirror image, made it relatively difficult.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Phoenix Hall, Kyoto, Japan, Jim Lane


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