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Sunday, 16 November 2014

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The secret of painting water

Why is that paintings of water so often go wrong? Undoubtedly, the main cause of failure is over-elaboration. The problem is that, when you really start to look at it,

The river seems to flow uphill

even the calmest water is constantly moving and changing. Ripples and eddies come and go; reflections stretch and shrink; patches of light wink on the surface and disappear. The inexperienced artist announces on everyone of these elusive details, like a kitten chasing butterflies and ends up getting hopelessly confused.

Worse still, with every stroke of paint applied the painting becomes more cluttered and what started out as a river or a lake begins to look more like a patterned carpet. Another common error demonstrated in the painting shown here is that of making the river seems to flow uphill!

First the angle where the river curves round the bend is too wide: it should be much flatter and sharper. Second, there's no sense of perspective in the ripples on the water's surface because they are all the same size; they should become smaller, darker and closer together as they recede into the distance in line with the laws of perspective.

Solution

The secret of painting water is to "edit out" all the superfluous details and go for the bigger masses of tone and colour. You've probably heard the saying, "less is more" and nowhere does this apply more readily than in the painting of water. Achieving the smooth, glassy look of water requires surprisingly little effort; often a few sweeping strokes with a broad brush on damp paper are enough to convey the effect you want. Yet beginners often seem to think that there must be more to it than that and insist on putting in a few odd streaks and ripples here and there for good measure.

Be decisive whether you apply your colours to dry or damp paper is a matter of preference, but here's one important piece of advice: choose your colours with care and apply them with confidence. The more decisively and simply you paint water the wetter it looks, so try to work with large brushes that discourage the habit of fiddling and prodding and use plenty of water to facilitate smooth, even strokes.

Mix your colours carefully on the palette and test them on scrap paper before committing yourself, remembering that they should appear quite dark in tone to allow for the fact that they will fade a lot on drying.

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