Sydney Vale highlights some of the problems that confront the marine painter.  Boats and reflections

I recently read an article by a famous painter, who wrote words to the effect, “To be a marine painter you must go to sea and study ships and boats in motion”.  This I agree with to a certain extent, but if you do study and draw boards from the land make sure that you watch the movement of the sky and sea together.  Many a good painting has been produced by artists who have never been to sea.

Inland waterways and docks are good places to study shipping and the technical side, if you like to paint in this style, but when a ship is at sea a lot of these small details have to be left out of your painting to gain atmosphere.  Often we see paintings with a dramatic sky and a good sea running, then a boat is painted as if copied from a photograph and it looks very static.  It is a marvellous experience to watch the sky and to note the effect it can have on the sea, suddenly a brilliant green will appear under a dark cloud and you begin to wonder how it is possible for the sea to be changed from this to a warm patch of light in the water next to the green, which is caused by a sand bank just below the water.

Barge in the Thames Estuary.  Watercolour 14” x 20”

Having been invited to follow a Barge Match from time to time, I have numerous sketches of barges and also passing shipping, Barge in the Thames Estuary was painted on a watercolour board with a fairly smooth surface and used in the upright position, as at the time I was demonstrating to an Art Society.  As you may know the correct angle to have your paper or board for painting is 45 degrees.  After drawing my subject, I first wetted the board with water then proceeded to add yellow ochre for the main light in the sky, letting this run down into the sea.  This must be done very quickly and one must control it at the same time.  Next, cobalt and light red were added on the right hand side at the top; following this, French ultramarine and light red, slightly more pigment in this, to give a darker effect, allowing it to run down over the barge on the left.  Now the sky is completed.  For the sea, a pale wash of yellow ochre and French ultramarine was used, picking some of the sky colours up, and this was washed down to the base of the painting, leaving a few white spaces for the breaking waves.

A decision on the colour for the sails is the next stage – alizarin crimson, light red and a touch of French ultramarine mixed together gave me the reddish brown colour I required.  This was applied whilst the painting was still slightly damp, making sure to draw with my brush the correct shape of the sails because some of the old sailors get very critical about this sort of thing!

The rest of the barge was then painted in varying shades of light red, French ultramarine and burnt umber.  Then I tackled the sea with French ultramarine and yellow ochre to make a darker green to give the formation of the waves.  Then at the base, French ultramarine and alizarin crimson, mixed together, picking up some of the wet green, were applied to make the very dark wave, thus forcing up the light in the rest of the painting.  A lot of mental effort goes into producing a painting this like, but then it is so rewarding if it happens to be successful.

The Wellington from the Embankment.  Watercolour 14” x 20”

The Wellington from the Embankment I painted on a Wednesday evening with the Wapping Group of Artists.  My main interest about this subject was in the tonal values relating to the sky and water which, in my opinion, were very subtle.  When painting boats, I often get more interested in the reflections in the water than the boats which cause the reflections.  You will note that this attitude if you study Little Venice, Paddington (below).  After drawing the outline thinly in blue with a small brush, the sky was washed in with yellow ochre and light red mixed, adding a slight touch of monastral blue and then a little alizarin crimson as it reached the horizon.  This procedure was repeated in reverse for the water which appeared very calm; hence there were some good reflections.  The house was painted with cobalt blue and light red, making a cool grey; the trees in various greens, then the old house-boat, which was to make the reflections, was given a wash of burnt umber and French ultramarine.  For the reflections I thinned the same wash down slightly because dark reflections appear lighter and, in reverse, a white boat will appear darker in its reflection.  The bridge was painted, and its reflections with other objects were then added.

Little Venice, Paddington.  Watercolour 14” x 20”

In seascapes, reflections are not as obvious as in untidal waters because the movement of the waves breaks up the mirrored effect.  You may get a feeling of colour from the boat or a light reflecting in rough water, but this will be distorted.

Wind will cause a disturbance on the surface of water in lakes and ponds and also in calm waters in docks.  Often when I have been painting a subject in the docks, such as a trading vessel being unloaded, the reflections have been broken up by wind cutting between the warehouses; then the reflections disappear to be repeated again in the undisturbed water.  This effect is often seen on lakes were the wind cuts between the mountains through the valley.

When I have been painting in Norfolk, around Blakeney, early in the morning when the tide in the back-waters is about to change, every boat seems to be floating on a mirrored surface and appears to be very still.  The reflections seem to be a lot longer than the boats themselves, but having measured the boats and the reflections with the brush held at arms’ length (the system we have been taught for measuring).  I have found they are both equal, but I have been tempted to paint the reflections a little longer in length.

Seascape.  Watercolour 14” x 20”

The remaining illustrations here are for you to study (above and below).  Just a few brush strokes in the right place, of the correct tone and shape will make a piece of paper look like water!  Mind you, this will take a lot of practice and may not always be a success; but we must all keep trying.

Morstone, Norfolk.  Watercolour 14” x 20”

Just a few words about the receding tide.  Often we start drawing a boat tied up to the quay, then, whilst painting, the tide begins to go out and the boat gets lower and the quayside gets higher.  Sometimes we do not notice this and your first drawing seems wrong.  If you cannot retain your  first impression and try to change the perspective, then the work will continue incorrectly.