Reflecting on Reflections

109-reflections.jpgArtists have been attracted to reflections throughout history. We all admire what Monet did with the reflections of the Houses of Parliament as well as the famous water lily series. This attraction to reflections was certainly an impetus for my painting, Winter Canal (left; pastel, 12×12).

Contemporary pastel artist, Fred Somers, from Minnesota, has also done some very interesting and intriguing paintings of reflections on water—such as his painting, Gold Leaf on Crimson Waters (pastel, 18×24) below. (To learn more about Somers, see the feature on the artist in the October issue of The Pastel Journal, and visit his website).

7208_167225l.jpgAs beautiful as reflections are, there are a few observations about them that are often overlooked by the novice painter:

  1. Reflections are not a mirror reflection of the scene. You are seeing the reflected images and the scene in front of you from two different viewing angles. The reflection is coming off the surface of the water, but you see the reflection from an angle as far below the water’s surface as you are above it. Depending on your visual height compared to the reflective surface, this can vary considerably. If you are six feet tall and standing on the edge of the reflective body, the reflection would be coming from a distance of six feet below the surface of the water. In other words, the reflection is showing you the underside of what you can see and, due to its angle, may cut off things you are capable of seeing in the distance. This is evident when looking at a distant mountain across a lake but only a tip of it reflects below the tree line along the shore. From the water surface, the mountain would not be visible, but to you it is very clear. Think of the reflection as being you, submerged in the water, looking up. The angle of vision is greatly different than what you see eye-level from the shore. This is more pronounced when closer to the reflection and becomes less noticeable at great distances.
  2. Generally, darks reflect slightly lighter and lights slightly darker. Depending on the clarity of the water, this can be more or less pronounced. Color will be affected by the surface tone and is rarely brighter in chroma than what is being reflected.
  3. All reflections move towards you. A reflection takes three components: the objects reflecting, the surface they are reflecting on, and you. You are the component most often left out of the recipe. Reflections travel towards your eyes and will appear to follow you when you move. To best see this, go to a boat basin and look at the reflections of tall upright poles in the water. As they reflect, the tops (which are at the bottom of the reflection) appear to come towards your feet. This can be subtle but is a fact of reflections.
  4. Edges should be softer than the reflecting objects. Due to the refractive nature of even the stillest water, edges should be slightly softened. Sparkles on the surface of the water should also be softened and radiate from near white to a slight orange yellow as the light is being bent. As light hits the surface of the water, it is shattered. Try not to paint those perfect little white dots that photography is capable of capturing. The human eye is not a camera lens and shutter.

By looking for these tendencies, you will become more sensitive to the true nature of reflections and your paintings will manifest a more natural appearance?

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2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Reflections

  1. Barbara Craver

    This is great, but I really am having a hard time understanding this part of point #1: "you see the reflection from an angle as far below the water’s surface as you are above it". I just don’t understand how that can be, aren’t we looking at the reflective surface of the water?

    Maybe I don’t really need to understand the physics, just work on observation (paint what you see, not what you know). If you can elaborate on the above, it would make my mind feel less its twisting inside out trying to figure out why I’m in the water looking up!

    Trying too hard? Thanks for everything, I love this blog for us pastel addicts!