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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Eye and HandRiver Run

Practical Art for Paddlers — 
Drawing Water

By Tamia Nelson

July 6, 2010

Last month, we explored how the interplay between light and shadow can be used to evoke the three‑dimensional world on the flat surface of a sheet of paper. Now we're ready to move on, and we'll start with a subject that's close to every paddler's heart: water. But water has many moods, from the placid stillness of a tucked‑away mountain tarn on a sullen summer's day to the howling tumult of a surf‑hammered shore. Luckily, most paddlers soon master the elements of water's secret language, learning to read the many hidden forces that dictate whether a body of water sulks or storms. And this "secret language" is the key to capturing water's moods with a pencil.

How do you begin? In the same way you learned to paddle, by venturing cautiously out onto…


Seems simple enough, doesn't it? Flatwater is, well, flat — at least until a wind kicks up. No towering waves, no boat‑eating holes, no ziggurats of spume. But as every paddler knows, even calm waters can play tricks on the unwary. You can capsize in a farm pond, after all. Whether you look at water from the perspective of a paddler or an artist, it's always a slippery customer. That said, you can get a grip on it. A padder hones her strokes and learns to see beneath the surface. An artist needs to do the same thing. Start with the basics: sketch in the outlines and follow the play of light. Pay attention to reflections, shadows, and ripples. Look for rocks, emergent vegetation, and standing dead trees. Pencil in the shoreline and the surrounding forest. Sometimes the outlines alone are enough. Call it drawing by exclusion, if you will. But at other times, you'll need to use light and shadow to define your subject. Take this scene, for example:

Wood and Water

Two weathered relics of shattered trees rise out of a quiet backwater, flanked by time‑worn boulders. There's scarcely a ripple to be seen, and the stumps cast sharply defined shadows, while the bottom of the shallow pool hovers at the limits of visibility. A bright border picks out each object's waterline, and this white thread is surmounted by a dark ring of damp, evidence of The River's rapid fall.

Here's how I sketched the scene: I started by outlining the principal forms, using a mechanical pencil and a 0.7mm lead.

First Strokes

Now it was time to refine the portrait of the weathered rock and wood by exploiting the interplay of light and shadow. For this, I used lines of varying "weights" (heavy, light, and in‑between) and thicknesses, first employing the mechanical pencil and then turning to a #1 soft lead. I evoked texture by the shape (straight or curved) and orientation of the lines, shadow by the simple expedient of shading.

Filling In

Next, I added a few faint curlicues to hint at the almost invisible ripples, before undertaking the fussy work of "coloring" the dark reflected images. I built up each one gradually, laying down layer after layer and working from the inside toward the edge, so as to minimize overrunning. Since my interest was limited to what lay at and above the surface, I didn't even attempt to reproduce the barely visible bottom detail. The whole thing was done in a few minutes.

Finishing Up


OK. It's time to move on, to say goodbye to sheltered backwaters and try our luck…

Going With the Flow

At first glance, any attempt to sketch moving water — and here I include any lake or pond whose surface is disturbed by wind‑driven waves — seems like mission impossible. There's just too much going on, and it's all happening much too fast. But don't give up. It pays to take a second look. Sometimes things are simpler than they appear. Take this tongue of water spilling over a low ledge, for instance:

Tongue of Water

What do you see? A chiaroscuro subject, defined by the interplay of light and dark, the water's surface creased by longitudinal furrows where the tongue is gathered together, only to explode in frothy confusion on its release. Intricate? Yes. Impossible? No. Here's how I approached it:


I began with few light pencil strokes, defining streamlines and outlining the margins of tongue and tumult. Then I filled in the details, using a broad, soft lead to suggest both the dark, smooth slicks at the lip of the drop and the nearly formless forms of the aerated waters below. It was the work of minutes to finish the job.

Finishing Touches

The result is a vivid portrait of fast‑flowing water — somewhat impressionistic, but faithful to its subject nonetheless. I couldn't capture the wonderful amber tint of the stream with my pencil, of course, but I did manage to suggest the range of tonal variation. I had to be satisfied with that.

Now let's look at a really complex scene: a chain of falls along a stretch of water where The River really rages…

Watery Staircase

It's a difficult subject, to be sure. But paddlers have a real advantage here. We're used to seeing the order that often underlies apparent chaos. And just how does this work out in practice? Well, I began by penciling in each step in the water's headlong descent, then added a bare outline of the tree‑clad spit…

First Steps

Next, I used my soft lead pencil to shade land and water as needed, before sketching the current lines. I finished up by adding the sawtooth reversal at the foot of the middle drop and evoking the maelstrom of spume and spray in both foreground and distance:

Filling In

I was happy enough with the result, but the amount of scribbling required to limn the scene belied the short, matter‑of‑fact description of the task. This wasn't a quick scribble in my journal; it was a piece of studio work. That said, it's possible to reduce all but the most complicated subject to…

Bare Essentials

And why is this important? In a studio, working from a photograph, there's no real need for economy of effort. You can take as much time as required. But that's not the case if you're making a hurried sketch in your journal at the water's edge, especially if a storm is brewing or you've miles to go before you sleep. The good news? A few well‑chosen lines can accomplish a lot. Consider the following scene:

Tongues and Haystacks

Working quickly, I first employed broad, dark strokes to outline the main features, then added a few current lines and curlicues with a lighter touch. In a couple of minutes I had this:

Quick Sketch

Even though I used almost no shading, and very few lines, the sketch captures the elements of the subject. In fact, as a guide to conditions at the time, it might well be better than a more highly elaborated drawing, in which essentials could get lost in a fog of detail. Sometimes less is more. Now here are two further examples:

Eddy and Hole

There's no doubt about what you're seeing here, is there? Two eddies — one a textbook classic, the other a sneakier (and more dangerous) "pillow" or "pour‑over," with a frothy hole just downstream. But it doesn't pay to get complacent. Not every quick sketch is as successful as these. Take this one, for example:

Rock Pool

The subject? A small, rivulet‑fed, low‑water pool. My hurried scribble captures the little pool's outline, but the hasty shading falls short of the mark, failing to differentiate clearly between rock and water, at least at first glance. A few lines may be all you need, but they have to be the right lines! Yet the sketch isn't a total write‑off. A close inspection reveals several intriguing details, including a fallen oak leaf on the rock and weed stalks protruding from a crack. Both help to fix the image on the emulsion of memory, and that's the first purpose of a journal entry. Art is secondary.

So, which is it to be? Fewer lines or more? And which is better? That's for you to decide. Here's a side‑by‑side comparison:

Staircase Revisited

The picture on the left is the portrait of the stepped falls that you saw before, while the sketch on the right depicts the same scene with fewer lines and less shading. Both do a creditable job, but the one on the right was finished in just a couple of minutes standing on the riverbank. In some ways, I think it's the better of the two, particularly in its rendering of the tree silhouettes. And it evokes the tangy scent of spray even as I look at it, something that no studio portrait can manage.


What's the bottom line? Pencil sketches can do a fine job of capturing the fluid immediacy of water in all its moods, but they have their limitations. Unless you use colored pencils, your portraits will be monochrome. And that's a shame, since color is an integral part of water's quicksilver charm. Still, you can always make notes to help you add the colors later, in the studio. Or you can execute watercolor sketches on the spot. But that's a subject for another time.


Reflected Glory


Any way you look at it, water's a natural, and that goes double for paddlers who want to illustrate their journal entries with quick sketches. Of course, it's not easy to capture a fluid medium with just a pencil and paper. Then again, "not easy" doesn't have to mean "impossible," does it? Certainly not! Just begin as you did when you were learning to paddle. Master flatwater first and then move on. Before you know it, you'll be drawing water in all its humors.

What's next? We've just tackled one slippery subject. But now it's time to raise our eyes and look around, to capture the whole sweep of the landscape, from the scudding clouds to the cobbles on the beach. A big job? Sure! Don't worry, though. It's no harder than learning to thread a rapid. In the meantime, keep sketching. And if you have any sketches you'd like to share, shoot pictures of them and send them along to me. I'd love to see them.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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