Reflections in paintings

When creating a landscape picture, a painting for example, in which there are items reflected in water, the behaviour of the reflected image is not always as expected. If you are viewing a scene in which there are perfect reflections, you can record the scene as you see it – no problem. However, lets say because of wind the water surface is disturbed and you can only see a featureless surface but you would like to paint the scene with perfect reflections. How will you construct the scene?

The Scene as you see it

This imaginary scene shows an island on which there are 2 towers reflected on the surface of the water. We see the towers appear of equal height but we know the blue tower is much further away from us because it is less clear and the atmospheric haze makes this obvious. We can then deduce that the blue tower must be much taller than the red one because distance makes it appear smaller and we see it as the same size as the red tower. We don’t consciously work this out. Our spacial awareness computes this automatically.

Why then is the blue tower in the reflection shorter than the red one? The drawing below explains whats happening. The dotted line is the line of sight of the observer viewing the scene. You can see the line of sight places the two tower tops as of equal height (on the same line). But in the reflected image the lines of sight from the 2 tower tops are not the same line. The top of the blue tower lines up with approximately half the height of the red tower (where the dotted line crosses the reflected image of the red tower). The critical element here is the distance or height of the point of view. We rarely ever view a scene from water surface level. The higher we are above the surface of the water the more extreme the effect is.

The scene, side view

So what does this mean for the artist? If the painter paints the scene correctly (as in ‘The Scene as you see it’) and does not make the further distance of the blue tower very obvious, the shorter reflected image will be considered as a mistake. If, on the other hand, the painter shows both towers reflected as equal lengths but paints the blue tower as in the distance, this representation of the tower will now be considered a mistake. Optical phenomena in paintings are always considered as mistakes. Whether it is the faithfully represented, but very unusual, sunset or the bizarre arrangement of objects you sometimes find in a landscape, they are regarded as mistakes.

Optical phenomena in photographs are accepted almost without question. This seems strange as digital manipulation of photographs is very easy to master and within the scope of anybody with a digital camera and a computer. Yet the image is not analysed by the viewer in the same way as a painting. Will this change in the future? Who knows. We, as painters, have to be aware of this. As a ‘mistake’ (like the one above) in a painting can block the viewers further involvement in the painting.

The actual painting of the reflections in a landscape is best described by demonstration. I’m working on this and will have a demo video in the near future.

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One thought on “Reflections in paintings

  1. Pingback: Rainbow’s End – Time Lapse Painting « PictureS

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