Artists have always been drawn to the water. The popularity of marine painting has lasted for centuries, and one of the reasons is that boats are such a challenging subject for drawing. They’re filled with curving lines that don’t seem to obey the rules for lines and perspective. But they’re not impossible to master, and along with the challenge comes an appreciation for these elegant, ingenious forms that can make them some of your most rewarding subjects.
As anyone with nautical experience—especially a marine painter—knows, the word boat covers a tremendous variety of watercraft, and no two styles seem alike. Although not typically used for ships (freighters, tankers, whalers, etc.), the term can mean anything from sailboats to shrimpers to racing boats to the humble rowboat or canoe, and to add to the realism of your work it’s good to be specific about which type you’re trying to render. In any case, there are enough similarities among the basic forms of boats that learning a few basic drawing skills should equip you to make almost any boat look ready for launch.
The Figure Eight
A good starting point for establishing the shape of most boats is the figure eight method. Here’s how it works: The two loops of a figure eight turned on its side form the deck line of a boat as viewed from almost any side angle. The loops can be elongated or compacted to accommodate different perspectives, and beneath this simple figure you can draw in the body of a boat with one loop to represent the bow and the other the stern.
One of the most common mistakes beginners make is to use straight lines to draw a boat, and that’s why this method is so useful. Because there are so few straight lines to be found, the figure eight gives your drawing the curved shape and the symmetry that’s natural to any well-built boat. The increase in curvature at the ends of the figure, too, tell the viewer that the plane of the boat’s side is still curving as it goes out of sight. To get familiar with this technique, try loosely drawing a series of figure eights freehand and then draw a boat from whatever view the figure dictates.
Construction and Composition
A little knowledge of how a boat is built—and why it’s built that way—will give you a big advantage in drawing it well. For example, one of the simplest boats, the flat-bottomed rowboat, is made by bending a wide plank for each side and then attaching short pieces crosswise to form the bottom. But don’t forget about the seats. In addition to giving the occupants a place to sit, the seats of a rowboat help to define the shape of the vessel by holding the sides out in their curved shape, as though forcing the boat open. They should be just as integral to your drawing as they are to the boat itself.
If the sides of a boat are made of plastic or fiberglass, they’ll be very smoothly molded with no interior framing. On a wooden boat, the planks are often fitted very closely in order to approximate this smoothness, but you may find it more interesting to draw a wooden boat with overlapping planks, Viking-style. Here each curved plank overlaps the one below it to form a rounded bottom, giving you a good opportunity to add shadows and texture to your drawing.
When determining how boats fit into your overall composition, give yourself the freedom to put them in unusual positions, such as lurching with a wave or beached on the shore or tied to another boat. Where you find one boat you’re likely to find many more, so try varying the size and level of definition in addition to the style of those depicted. Drawing boats on land can be especially interesting—they can be piled together or set upon blocks for repair or, as is often the case with small boats, overturned. Also, don’t forget to add accessories, particularly with larger boats: ladders, life preservers, anchors, bumpers, cleats and lines, fishing gear, antennae, flags, and (not least important) people. The list could go on, and it’s often these touches that make an otherwise sterile scene interesting.
Getting Your Perspective
Perspective can be a difficult issue with boats because practically nothing seems to line up with a common vanishing point (the imaginary point in the distance where parallel lines appear to intersect), except perhaps for a row of windows or the vertical masts or stanchions. As I mentioned before, there are few straight lines (even the deck and transom are curved), but often the best places to find consistency are along the edges of seats and across the top of the transom. Remember, too, that a boat on the water is constantly in motion in more than one direction, so lines that appear horizontal won’t necessarily line up with the horizon and very rarely will match those of other boats.
Other than varying the size of the boats, there are a few keys to creating depth in a nautical scene. The boats you draw can be overlapped by those in front of them, and distant vessels should be placed higher in the picture than near ones. Plus, although vanishing points can be illusive they are a great tool for making boats appear at varying distances from the viewer. When you want a boat to look near, increase the perspective by moving the point (or points) closer, thereby showing a more distinct difference between the near and far areas of the boat. When you want the boat far away, decrease the perspective by moving the point back into the distance.
Also, to give a boat correct shape, try to show at least a little of both sides, because a glimpse of the far side of the craft and some interior detail will give a sense of breadth to the hull. This helps to create the third dimension in the picture, somewhat like drawing the harness on a horse.
Hitting the Water
Finally, pay close attention to where the water meets the boat, and remember that a boat sits in, not on, the water. Most boats have a waterline, or boottop (as seen at right), painted directly on their sides, but this line leaves plenty of leeway for how heavily the boat is loaded. If you have a heavily laden boat you may not see the waterline at all.
Also, water is a restless medium, and even when it appears docile there’s still some movement to the surface. So although in the big picture the water will be level with the horizon, it moves across the boat in peaks and valleys that are a function of both the wave patterns and the size and shape of the boat. A boat in motion also creates a wake from both the bow and the stern, and this is the clearest way to indicate a boat’s movement—the more turbulent the wake, the greater the boat’s speed.
Of course these guidelines merely scratch the surface of this subject, for there are different drawing issues that will arise with every type of boat and every new composition. You’re bound to discover these yourself, and dealing with them is mostly a matter of referring to a few fundamentals and then letting your own observations dictate. That’s part of the fascination of marine painting. The more you see, the more artistic discoveries you’ll make.
Heather Galloway is a freelance conservator living in northern Ohio.