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How to draw water

Ripples and waves

The formation of waves at sea is a natural phenomenon which will give you plenty to think about when you include them in your drawings. But actually waves are not all that difficult to draw provided that you put in a bit of preparatory work. But there’s no gainsaying the fact that drawing a sea in movement is an art in itself, so much so hat some draughtsmen, painters and watercolour artists have devoted their whole life to it.

In actual fact, we are dealing with two separate subjects here -drawings of the open sea and drawings of the shore. It is more unusual to come across underwater scenes but I will say something about this as well at the end.

In open-sea scenes, it is important to enliven the subject with heavy waves in the foregrounds, boats, icebergs, birds, etc. – anything you like really as long as it attracts the eye, otherwise you’ll end up with a dreadfully flat and visually tedious horizon line, even if the sea is well composed. Boats are of course things of beauty but you will need to beware certain classical errors which we address in the section devoted to the drawing of objects.

A methodical approach is all important when it comes to drawing waves. Don’t place your horizon line too high up. Remember, you want to avoid splitting your drawing into two equal parts.

Observe the sea. The wind blows and shapes the water into waves which take on a life of their own. They load themselves with increasing quantities of water as they rise. A crest is formed, growers thinner, bends and finally creates foam as it falls.

The amount of time taken up by this process will depend on the strength of the wind and certain currents. But remember, one wave will deliver its foam at the same time as another one begins to take shape.

In other words, your drawing will incorporate waves in all their different phases. The trick is to divide up these phases as logically and naturally as possible. If you were actually looking out to sea, everything would change too quickly for you to hope to seize a particular instant. All the more reason to grasp the principle at work when you organise your seascape.

Many examples of such organisation may be taken from nature. Perhaps not a perfect organisation but then perfection is not something we should be aiming at here. It is not enough to simply draw the same wave a certain number of times in the foreground, to copy the resulting row on a slightly smaller scale behind and so on as far as the horizon. If you did that you would end up with something looking like the scales of a fish, a wallpaper pattern or printed fabric devoid of all life. So how can we ensure a realistic effect?

Look again. The waves are spread almost equally over the entire surface; those with a crest have a triangular silhouette.

As they are arranged more or less in a quincunx with the hollow parts situated between two waves, the visible form is a diamond. The stronger the wind the narrower the diamond.

Look again.

If the sea is deep or if currents come into play, the two sides of the diamond can be of unequal proportions; the wave can become longer without becoming higher.

Now that you have completed your visual analysis, you can move on to draw your frame. Holding the pencil casually and without pressing on the paper draw a criss-cross grid in order to position the waves. Now come back to your painting and from time to time move a wave from its initially planned position on the grid. Whatever you do, avoid anything that smacks of a systematic approach. Allow your pencil to guide you outside the box you originally marked, think of something else, feel your way.

Now come back to the waves in he foreground and work on their form in a little greater detail. Now is the time to break up the horizon line by making the waves rise up sufficiently to bisect it. Some of them will be in their infancy, others rolling and yet others breaking. Use these waves as a model for their smaller cousins – cousins, mind you, not identical twins – as you move towards the horizon.

Now return a third time and his time put in the touches of shadow and light, leaving the paper intact at the places where the foam is formed.

Foam in fact is not always in evidence but it is hard to deny oneself the pleasure of these cascade or lace effects which stand out so pleasantly against the blue shades of the deep water.

Remember when drawing water that it is transparent, even in the open sea. Just because you can’t see the bottom of the sea, it doesn’t mean that the water is opaque. So there won’t be any shadows cast by one wave on another. At any rate the shadow will be very light because the wave allows part of the light to filter and because the attenuated shadow crosses the water on which it alights.

But the contrast must be sufficient to give consistency to the sea. Pure whites will be found in the foam and the sun’s reflections; blacks in the thickness of the foot of the waves which are sometimes midnight blue. Feel out the facets of these volumes of water and shade them into intermediate tints.

If you are drawing from memory, remember that the sails of boats must correspond to the direction of the wind. If the sails swell to the right, the foam will be on the right of the waves. Errors with this sort of thing may not be apparent at first glance but you can be sure that people familiar with the sea will quickly spot any incongruities in your seascapes or drawings of boats.

The seaside

Far more artists are drawn to the seaside than to the open sea. It’s easy to understand why. Apart from the fact that drawing on a boat is no easy matter, the seaside has a lot going for it in terms of composition and points of interest.

Looking out to sea from the coast, you can exploit two rather pleasant things: the creeks? of a little bay and the foreground. In any reasonably sized creek, the coast appears towards the centre of the drawing in the distance. Mist and sea effects will make the picture even more enjoyable and the coast breaks up the horizon line to agreeable effect. The crest of a rock can also make a welcome addition.

This kind of distant coastline is fairly easy to draw. What you want to avoid at all costs is the sort of mechanical gesture which would make this part of your drawing too regular. This is particularly important here since the coastline will stand out against a generally clear background and the contours will be clearly visible.

Important: if you are partially inventing your landscape, try not to advance on one side or the other, or if you do so, at least guard against any ungracious symmetry. As far as the path taken by the eye is concerned, if a creek? is too enclosed, the gaze starts off from the foreground, exits via the clear passage and then finds no natural path to continue. Boredom sets in immediately.

The foreground (the water lapping up against a sandy or pebble beach) is full of interest. First of all, unlike the open sea, the waves are very different in the distance and on the edge, in other words in the foreground. Here, they break up and spread out on the wet sand, creating countless reflections. The foam left behind by each wave dying at your feet produces a series of jagged borders which will enliven the foreground and give the pencil ample scope to express itself.

But remember that the seaside can also be the sea seen from the water; it is the water striking the shore, rocks and seawalls. If this is your chosen viewpoint, any number of subjects are open to you and you will have the twin pleasure of rendering the water and depicting the coast.

The effects can run the gamut from utter calm to violent storm, from very dark to very clear, from very empty to highly detailed.

Here are just a few of the many scenes that the sea conjures up: The coast at low tide when the rocks are still wet and the pools full of refreshing water; seawalls hit by the unbridled fury of the water spraying all in its path and rendering even the darkest stones white; the fishermen’s houses reflected in the still water of the evening; fishing ports, lighthouses, beach huts; tall trees, coconut trees, lush tropical vegetation. And so on and so forth!


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