Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A seascape lesson

all paintings in this post are by Frederick Waugh

Dear Stape,
I love the Waugh paintings you show on your blog and can't help wonder. Why is it so gosh darned hard to understand water? I've read a bunch of books with titles like "How to Paint Water" that give a basic diagram of a single wave, talk about the importance of perspective or that explain how reflections work, but how do I find instructions for painting majestic choppy seas full of value and color changes? What do I need to understand about the structure of choppy water that Waugh and other maritime painters knew, allowing them to paint such realistic drama from foreground to background. What is the structure of rough seas and what are the principles for coloring the individual chops?

Noah Levi Liddup


That's a really big question. Seascape is (at least for me) extremely difficult I have been working on it for years and it still feels really experimental. I am very comfortable painting in front of nature, painting the sea is a whole different animal.

My experience is that a surf painting has to be invented in the studio. Sketches can be done on location, and a lot is learned by doing that, however when you see a Waugh, it is a studio painting. If you really set up in his vantage points the incoming wave would probably kill you.

I am going to lay out a basic explanation of the biggest idea in painting water.


Above is a Waugh, and below I have clipped a passage from the foreground to illustrate what I mean. In this example, the water is reflecting the sky on the planes that are "level" or what I call the "floors". The broken mirror facets on the "floors' reflect the sky pretty well, but not perfectly, they subtract some percentage of the light they receive as some of it passes down into the water. So they are darker in value than the sky.

The facets or planes of choppy water look a little like a mountains slanting surfaces rising up from a broad base in a tapering pyramid shape. Each of those planes either reflects a different part of the sky or is in shadow. Those facets which take no light from the sky, that is, stand between us and the light, are the darkest. The more vertical the facet, the darker they will be. Seascape painters frequently use a back light because it simplifies the representation of the wave structure and it looks wicked cool. Remember that the world of the shadow is always darker than the world of the light. That means there will be a dark line bounding the top of the wave and the smaller little "mountain spurs" riding on it. That line will be the darkest thing in the wave.

You will need to work with at least three separate values to explain the structure of the wave. Those are needed for the shadow, the less vertical planes which are taking less light and the floors or surfaces which reflect the sky most. If you look at the detail below you can pick out these three values.

I will talk a little more about the structure of the "chop" in the next post.


Michael King said...

Do the same principles apply to the foam as well?

Sarah Faragher said...

Thanks so much for this timely post. I've been painting (attempting to paint, I should say) rocks and surf all year and this is very helpful. Also, I'm halfway though the George Havens biography of Waugh: "Frederick J. Waugh: American Marine Painter" (University of Maine Press 1969). Havens's writing is so-so but the book still presents a lot of useful information. And some good first-person stuff from Waugh himself.

Re painting surf, my main problem seems to be keeping a sense of movement and spontaneity without resorting to a formula. Not that I even have a formula, but... you know. Keeping it alive and unfussy.

a Nantucket blog. said...

Enjoying the posts...

Pam Holnback said...

This was so helpful. The three values seem so obvious when you explained it, but I never really got it. Living in Colorado I don't paint lots of seascapes, and our rivers and reservoirs aren't this choppy!

tom martino said...

Really good info; as a frequent seascape painter, I really appreciate your remarks and insights.

colleen said...

as a full time seascape painter for the last year and a half, I really like how you explain this, I was already doing it from observation and Carlson translated to the sea, but your way of saying it really made it simple and clear....looking forward to more on the sea, its very hard to find information from good painters on it.

Jan Blencowe said...

Hi Stape, I am so relieved to see you write that "Seascape is (at least for me) extremely difficult I have been working on it for years and it still feels really experimental." I have just dipped into the seascape genre this year. Before I began I went back and re-read all your past posts on the subject and re-read two of the books you recommended and this is yet another very informative post. I'm looking forward to more as I have discovered a new found love for painting the sea. As always thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

Dale Cook said...

I live on the east coast of Canada and have lots of wonderful seascapes to paint from. My problem is color - the atlantic sea is so GREY!

David Teter said...

Great info, agree with Jan Blencowe, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.
It does seem easy, until you sit down and paint a seascape.
Waugh makes it look so easy... he better have struggled some too otherwise it's just not fair.

Lucy said...

A wonderful informative post thank you.
Did Waugh write books on Painting the sea?

willek said...

Again, I am noticing in these seascapes a sense that, in the pictures with lower horizons, the painter has changed the perspective of the sea plane so that it tilts downwards in front of the first or second wave. It is my imagination or is it a device that they used. It does not seem so obvious in the pictures with higher horizons.

Leslie Sealey said...

Thank you for writing such a helpful post. I'm starting to work on some seascapes, and trying to keep it loose while correctly depicting the wave structure is a challenge. You do a great job of making this complex subject easier to understand; thanks again.