Boats are full of subtle curves and complex structures – from a small two-man craft to a huge rusty trawler – which at first glance can appear rather daunting. A more familiar and easier shape to draw is a shoe box; it is a perfect starting point because a boat, no matter how small or large, fits nicely into its shape.

Fishing Boats, Portugal, watercolour on Bockingford Rough 140lb (300gsm), (18x25.5cm).

I was inspired by the sparkling light on these little boats and also fascinated by how dark the reflections were because I was looking into the light. Reflections were sharp, painted wet-on-dry.


A rectangular box is made up of parallel lines, for the width, length and height. When viewed at an angle, the length and the width of the box recede away from us towards the eye level. Each side has its own vanishing point, but there is only one eye level. As these lines recede, they also appear to converge. If they went on into infinity, they would eventually meet at their respective vanishing points on the eye level. A line that is below the eye level appears to slope upwards as it recedes away from us, while lines above us appear to slope downwards as they recede.

Example 1

Viewed from the front with the eye level above = 1 vanishing point

Example 2

Viewed from the side with the eye level above = 1 vanishing point

Example 3

Viewed from a 3/4 angle with the eye level above = 2 vanishing points

Example 4

Viewed from a lower 3/4 angle with the eye level cutting through the hull = 2 vanishing points

Establish the eye level

The first thing to note is our eye level or horizon line. Standing on the quayside, we often find ourselves looking down on vessels in the harbour, with our eye level above them. At high tide the boats rise up to be nearer the eye level and larger vessels may even cross the eye line and become taller than we are. Walking on the sand at low tide, we still need to relate to the eye level ahead of us and if the boats are above or below it in terms of their height.

With the eye level noted, I look at the height and angle of the boat and lightly sketch out the structure of the box to represent its mass and position in the composition. This is quite rough initially, just to have something on the paper to relate to. Then I check the length, height and width of the box in relation to the vessel, correcting the box structure as I go.

All lines are kept very light, so as not to interfere with the final study. With practice, I find a minimum of lines are required, just enough to get the angles and proportions noted. This acts as a template, a scaffolding to hold the drawing up, into which I can sketch the hull of the boat, also noting the centre line that runs the length of the craft. With the hull established I add the details: ropes, floats, windows, rudder etc, using smaller boxes for the wheelhouse if the boat has one.

Given that boxes form the basis of so many other structures to be seen around a harbour – buildings, cars, trucks and boxes of ice or fish on the quayside, etc – they are fundamental foundation shapes that are well worth practising.


Wherever there is water there will be reflections, with many different shapes and effects to be aware of. A reflection may be soft, wriggling and broken or sharp and still – it depends whether the surface is calm, lightly moving or windswept.

The shape of the boat’s reflection is also affected by our eye level. It’s important to remember that the sides of a boat are curved, not just along the length from the bow to the stern, but also from the side edge (the gunwale) to the centre line of the underside (the keel). Therefore, we see more of the underside of the boat in the shape of the reflection from a high viewpoint, making the reflection appear to be a lot deeper than the perceived depth of the boat. A good example of making sure we draw what we see, not what we know.

The fluid nature of watercolour makes it perfect for painting reflections. When the boat is afloat, I see the reflection as an extension of the shape of the boat.

By painting the reflection while the line of the hull is still damp, the edges fuse and help to give the effect of the vessel sitting in the water rather than balancing on the surface.


A key point to note is the definition of the reflection: is it soft or sharp? If there is a breeze on the water, the reflection is usually blurred. To achieve this effect, I work wet-into-wet, painting as much of the water’s surface in one wash as possible.

I first paint the boats and allow them to dry. I then wash in the main mass of the water’s surface, adding colour to suggest the sky overhead. While all is still quite wet, I lightly disturb the base of the boats with a brush tip to help them start to blend into the surface, then quickly add the reflections so the edges run and soften. Timing is crucial, as well as ensuring the mix for the reflection isn’t too thin – the amount of pigment must be sufficient so that it travels only as far as required. While all is still damp, highlights on the water’s surface can be lifted out with a damp brush. This process is also very effective for conveying shallow water and puddles at low tide.


For a calm surface with sharp reflections, the process is a lot easier to control and less frantic! In this instance, I start with the overall wash of the water and reflections of the sky, along with any ripples in the surface. This is then allowed to dry. The boats are painted next, including masts and other details on the hull, with the reflections added while the waterline is still wet to help connect the shapes.

Making the reflection ripples look natural and convincing takes practice; it’s very much about brush calligraphy and leaving breaks in the surface to suggest movement. Also note how the reflection is often more solid at the base of the boat, becoming more broken and fragmented as it gets further away.

High Tide, Mevagissey, watercolour on Saunders Waterford High White Rough, 140lb (300gsm), (35.5x25.5cm)

Order your copy of the May 2021 issue of The Artist to follow Paul's step-by-step demonstration to paint High Tide, Mevagissey, above.