Calm, still water is a great artistic subject because of its ability to create beautiful reflections. But outside of the bathtub how often do you find perfectly still water? Water in nature is always in motion, and while you may be able to freeze it in a photograph, the artists job is to put it back into motion in a single image. With just a little understanding of the nature of waves, and a healthy mix of consistency and variation, though, youll be able to re-create the action of the sea in your artwork.
Find a Pattern
The next time youre observing waves firsthand, be patient. When an interesting wave comes along, make a fast mental impression of it, then look beyond it for the waves that follow. A view from a beach may allow only the foremost wave to be seen, especially if its breaking with windblown foam, but if you can get a good look at the horizon between advancing waves youll see waves receding into the distance. (If the water appears calm, you may have to wait awhile or look very closely.)
The height of the waves and the visual distance between them will get smaller as they go back because of perspective, somewhat like the decrease in size of a row of utility poles fading into the distance. To render this sense of scale, begin by drawing the shape of the foreground wave and then draw the subsequent waves behind it, gradually and consistently reducing the space between them until they meet the horizon. (For a more detailed procedure, see the diagram at right.) At this stage, its easiest to assume that all the wave crests are fairly level and straight, and you can experiment with changing the scale to get different results.
Break the Pattern
Establishing a wave pattern this way provides a strong foundation for a realistic drawing of waves, but its not the whole story. In fact, theres no absolute logic determining the shape, direction and spacing of waves, and no two waves have the same crest pattern. So once youve got the overall structure, its time to create some variation within it.
Several factors can cause variations in the spacing of the waves. In very deep water, for instance, spacing of the crests may vary up to hundreds of feet. For turbulent scenes, a storm can cause smaller waves, or rollers, to ride piggyback on top of a deeper, undulating wave patternpossibly even in a different direction. When the current faces an opposing wind, short, choppy wavelets (a riptide) may be created. In a light and shifting wind, you may see small areas of ripples, or cats paws, scattered about. All of these are great touches you can use to add some realism and excitement to your drawing.
In drawing individual waves, value changes are one of the best and easiest ways to indicate movement. Breaking waves create the foam and spray that are characteristic of ocean scenes, and foam will often be the lightest part of your drawing or paintingsometimes even pure white. You may want to start a wave by lightly delineating the random shapes of foam patches, and then model the wave by darkening around them. Wind may cause the spray to rise above the wave crest and spew out in a breathtaking pattern, while in shallow water you may see the spray below the crest and in the trough. Remember, too, that waves may be breaking over a submerged reef or shoal that might be shown peeking through the surface, and also that when a wave dissipates on a sandy beach the foam may still be apparent after the wave form has disappeared.
Finally, if youre doing a value sketch in pencil be sure to use a soft pencil that allows for easy erasing and wont emboss the paper. Also, remember to use the direction of your pencil strokes to help indicate the flow of the water youre depicting. And dont be bound by too many straight lines. Remember that water is fluid and volatile, and the more of these qualities you can capture in your artwork, the more appealing your results will be.
Cathy Johnson is a contributing editor for Watercolor Magic, The Artist’s Magazine and Country Living. She’s written 22 books, including Creating Textures in Watercolor.