My students frequently hear me say “Paint from back to front.” This means we paint all the objects in back first. Each object in your painting may be made up of many layers and it is usually best to paint from back to front on each of those layers. How do we determine what these layers should be? Well, to do that we have to do something I call “Dissecting the Scene”.
To dissect the scene you have to learn to look at a scene or photograph in a certain way. Ask yourself what is farthest away from the viewer, or you in this case. If you are looking at a landscape the farthest thing might be the sky. As we move closer, the next thing would be the clouds in the sky. Then comes that flock of birds flying up there. The next closest might be mountains in the distance, or trees across the skyline. Proceed forward getting closer with each object in your painting. You get the idea.
Water gets a little more complicated because of its transparency. Suppose you want to paint a shallow river. Keep in mind that the farthest thing away from you in transparent water is the bottom of the river. I'm not counting that distant part of the stream where the water disappears around the bend. The water that is close enough to see the river bottom is what we're talking about here. It has multiple layers with objects suspended throughout. I'll list a few.
- River bottom.
- Rocks on the river bottom.
- Shadows cast by the rocks on the bottom of the river.
- Shadows cast on the rocks by the objects floating or swimming on or in the water: boats, leaves, insects, fish and so forth.
- Shadows cast on the rocks and river bottom by objects above the water such as rocks, clouds, trees, buildings, docks and flying birds.
- Objects swimming or particles suspended in the water.
- Currents and waves in the depths of the water. Different levels of the river have varying visibility and you can often see the currents. Surface waves reflect light through the water too.
- Surface of the water.
- Waves on the surface both crest (top) and trough (bottom or valley).
- Shadows cast by the waves.
- Highlights on the crests of the waves.
- Reflections on the surface.
- Shadows cast on the surface.
- Things floating on the surface such as boats, leaves, and fishing floats.
- Objects that stick out of the water above the surface and stretch down through the depths. This includes fish, cattails, tree stumps, logs, and reeds. These things may go all the way to the bottom and are painted differently at each level.
So you can see there are many layers to our subject, even more than it seems by this list. Each object in the water should be painted in multiple layers too. I usually paint water in seven or more layers not counting the rocks and river bottom because I like the water to look wet, deep, transparent and mysterious. I love the transparency of water so I use lots of glazes. Now, we can simplify this a little but the more layers the more real your water appears. It really isn't as complicated as you might think. Just paint what you see and start at the bottom and build up.