Friday, November 30, 2012

Artist Tip #7 - Painting Reflections

We artists often want to add reflections off water or hard, shiny surfaces.  First, some general advice:

  • Reflections always come vertically to the bottom of the picture plane, never at an angle.  This is a very basic difference between reflections and shadows.
  • Reflections can be the same or a different value or color as the object being reflected.  If the reflection is an exact inverted copy of the object, the painting can be confusing, so it's best to adjust some element of the reflection to be different.
  • Reflections, like shadows, look better if they don't perfectly imitate the shape of the object being reflected.
  • Reflections usually have a different view of the reflecting object than the direct view of that object.  Because the light from the object goes down to the reflecting surface and then bounces back up to the viewer's eye, reflections show more of the underside of the object than the direct view does.
  • It's wise to wait until the object itself is painted before painting its reflection, because some objects change as the painting progresses, and the reflection depends upon the object.

Let's first discuss reflections off water.  If the water is rough, the viewer tends to see little reflection of objects, but mostly reflections of the sky or simply a view through the water itself.  So in rough water, don't paint reflections of objects, or at the most, only hint at them, as in this painting, Morning in Maine.

For fairly smooth water, reflections are usually called for.  There are two basic and very different approaches, and the artist needs to decide which is most appropriate for the painting.  The first is a soft, diffuse reflection, normally painted with vertical strokes under the reflecting object.  In watercolor, the already-painted water can be rewet (after it is very dry!) and the vertical reflection paint strokes will diffuse, giving a soft reflection.  This technique is shown in this painting, Quiet Evening:

The second approach to water reflections is to paint hard-edge reflections, which loosely mimic the reflecting object but with some ripples to make the reflection shape interesting.  This technique is shown in this painting, The Red Dinghy:

When adding reflections to a shiny, hard surface, I generally find that a third approach sometimes gives interesting and convincing results.  This is to paint the reflection in rough, vertical strokes, leaving some untouched paper to give the reflection "sparkle".  In addition, when painting reflections on a hard surface, it's important to put some other marks on the surface - for example, lines representing cracks or seams - so it reads as a horizontal surface and not as a vertical surface or as water.  This painting, Fruit, is an example of this approach:

One final suggestion:  when painting any object sitting on a reflecting surface, it is important to paint a very narrow "crevice dark" along the bottom of the object.  If this isn't done, one can give the impression that the object - boat, fruit, person - is floating above the surface.  You can see a crevice dark in all of the example paintings in this post.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Fruit - Original Watercolor Painting

I often use this very colorful still life as the basis for a paint-along in my watercolor workshops, to get students comfortable with painting shapes with hard and soft edges, making soft backgrounds, trying the dry brush approach, and making marks with spatter and lines.

If you'd like to purchase this 11" x 15" original watercolor painting for $200 including shipping within the United States, you can do it securely on my website There are additional paintings for sale there, and my smaller paintings are available on my other website  Add a unique original painting to your collection!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Artist Tip #6 - Understanding Cast Shadows (Part 3)

Our last tip addressed the direction of cast shadows in backlit scenes.  In this final tip, I'll discuss a few more details that will help your cast shadows make your paintings more pleasing.

I suggest you do not paint cast shadows separately, but paint them right over the already-painted object they are falling on.  With watercolor, this has to be done after the base color is bone-dry, or a muddy mess will be the result.

Let's consider shadow color.  Shadows can and do have color, and we can make our paintings more entertaining by emphasizing or exaggerating their color.  I haven't found a color formula for shadows that always works, but you can consider the following possibile approaches.  
  • For outdoor scenes, shadows often tend towards blue or purple due to the cool nature of the light from the sky.
  • A different approach involves painting over the base color with its complement.  For example, on a yellow object, a purple hue often works very well to represent a cast shadow.
  • Finally, cast shadows can be livened up by painting the basic shadow and then charging in other colors.  For an impressionistic-style painting, it's not really necessary to "explain" where these charged colors come from, but claiming "color bounce" from nearby objects is a great excuse if you feel you need one.
Actual cast shadows are harder-edge near the object casting the shadow, and become softer-edged as the distance from the object increases.  Leaving a few soft or rough edges on cast shadows makes them look more like shadows and less like dark shapes cut out and glued down.  Of course, this is true for all shapes in our paintings - we need to vary the edges to integrate them into the painting.

I've found that when shadows fall mainly side-to-side in my paintings, they look best when all painted in roughly the same direction.  They also look better if their shape doesn't exactly match the shape of the object casting the shadow, but simply suggests that shape.  Care should be taken to connect shadows to the objects that cast them, so they "belong" to one another without an obvious change in color or value.  When figures cast shadows on the ground, these shadows "anchor" the figures in place and help to make them more realistic.

Finally, often a shadow is needed in a painting for design or composition reasons.  For example, many paintings can be improved by adding a dark shadow in the foreground, at the bottom of the painting.  This sort of shadow helps to lead the viewer's eye over the foreground and into the painting.  Such shadows can be added when needed without having to explain what object outside the picture plane is causing them.  I've included a painting with such a "dark doorstep" to illustrate this design technique.

If you'd like to review previous artist tips, you can find them all by going to the search box in the right-hand column of this blog, and searching for artist tips.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Port Penrhyn, Wales - Original Watercolor Painting

Port Penrhyn, Wales, just outside of Bangor, was built around 1800 to enable exporting slate from Penrhyn quarry. It's now a normal boatyard and docking facility. This view is at low tide, when many of the boats in the harbor stand out of the water - the sailboats on their double keels so they don't fall over.

If you'd like to purchase this 11" x 15" original watercolor painting for $200 including shipping within the United States, you can do it securely on my website There are additional paintings for sale there, and my smaller paintings are available on my other website  Add a unique original painting to your collection!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Artist Tip #5 - Understanding Cast Shadows (Part 2)

Our last tip addressed the value (the relative darkness) of cast shadows.  This tip will focus on the direction of cast shadows in front- and back-lit scenes.  I'll specifically discuss shadows in sunny and moon-lit landscapes, but the same considerations apply for other light sources like lamps, and even multiple cast shadows caused by multiple light sources.

When painting a well-lit scene, we need not understand the theory of shadows.  We can simply paint the shadows as we see them.  It is when we are "adding" sunlight or moonlight to an overcast scene, rearranging the objects, or painting an entirely contrived scene, that we need to understand the theory of shadow directions so that our finished painting looks believable.

Let's first consider a sunny landscape with the sun above the top of our picture plane and behind the objects being painted, so that they are "backlighted".  Since the sunbeams travel in a straight line, any shadows cast by objects or people must lie along the line between the object and the sun.  This can be seen in the accompanying painting, appropriately named Shadows.

Here, the sun is positioned above the largest figure's head just above the top of the paper, and behind all of the objects in the painting.  You can see that the shadows approximately lie along a line drawn between the objects (the figures, or the boats) and the sun position.  But we have all heard that the sun is so far away that all its light beams are parallel, so... why are the shadows in this painting not parallel to one another?

The answer is that they are parallel.  Recall that in perspective, parallel lines converge to a vanishing point - in this case, the sun.  So it's a mistake to paint in the same direction all shadows that mainly come either forward or backward.  They need to be painted toward a vanishing point (roughly, not necessarily exactly).  This fact about shadows in paintings is not intuitive, so you may need to think about it, and even draw some lines up into your "sky", to fully make this fact your own.

I thought that two Artist Tips would take care of cast shadows, but I still have a little more to say about them.  Stay tuned for Part 3 in Artist Tip #6.