Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Intermediate watercolor 2/5 You asked about water...

Make it Simple

It is not unusual to be seduced by the apparent complexity of water as a painting subject and end up making a multi-layered collection of several hundred brushstrokes. It is natural to want to do justice to the ever-changing subtlety of the surface, but it somehow always manages to elude translation. It can seem, since the subject is so complicated, that there must be somethingmissing from your attempt. And if you look a little more closely, sure enough, there is another element of subtle variation, one more layer of strokes, that might be just the missing ingredient. And so it goes, becoming more and more elaborate, and more and more like mud.
You might conclude from a few experiences like this that water is just too hard to paint, and add it to the list of subjects to be avoided. Living in Seattle, though, you can only get away with that for a little while before the lakes or the sound, or just the wet streets start calling to you. Besides, how can you paint Koi without something for them to swim in (hmmm, now that's a koi painting I might enjoy)
The problem is all about the complexity of the subject, but not with how to match that in paint. Rather, it's a question of how to make it simpler. Instead of focusing in on ever more subtle aspects of the subject, the real task is to step back and look for ways to generalize all that information.
Looking at water as interpreted by master watercolor painters is a good way to begin seeing which, of all those features we can perceive, are the essential ones.
Winslow Homer, in the Adirondacks

OK, it helps when the water is nice and calm. This is treated almost as an upward-facing mirror, reflecting the sky, with just a few strokes to represent the reflection of the canoe and paddlers.  But calm or not, Homer has surely omitted plenty of information. Is it too simple for you? How many layers did the artist make? What did the water look like before the darks were applied? Before the middle values?

Homer, again, in Bermuda.

How many layers? What did the first layer look like by itself?

John Singer Sargent    Venice, The Grand Canal

These are the same three layers that Homer used in his Bermuda scene: Sky, with reserved lights for the reflected buildings on the left, then the middle value reflections of the shadowed buildings on the right, and, finally, a few dark strokes for the reflections of the gondolas and posts.

Anders Zorn

This water, though very carefully done, is no more complex than Sargent's or Homer's. Count the layers. 

All three artists worked from a very general first layer - basically a reflection of the sky rendered with a single, overall wash. The second layer was the next most general statement - reflected buildings or, in Zorn's case, the soft-edged middl-value backs of the ripples. Finally, each painter made a series of hard-edged, horizontal darks to represent the reflections of nearby objects. 

For homework, try copying the water in a master work, like one of the above. Then, look for a picture of water (or go sit beside some real water), and see if you can perceive it as a series of layers, the simpler, the better. Here's a potential subject: