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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Randomness – or so it seems

Three Cows
A blustery Spring day, the surface of the pond is shimmering from the breeze. 

In a landscape painting, as in the real world, the element of randomness is expected and considered normal. Creating this look is difficult in a painting if we are trying to achieve an overall design. Deliberately painting randomness is almost impossible. Our instinct is to put order in our creations. Our efforts at producing a realistic cloudy sky, for instance, will have straight lines of clouds, perfect circles and various shapes from fluffy toys to cartoon characters we only notice after we’re finished painting our masterpiece.

As an aid to producing a pattern which has to look natural, for example a cloudy sky, I apply the initial dark paint layers in a vigorous and almost haphazard way. The result is chaotic. These shapes are used to develop the various clouds. Also ‘cross hatching’ blends the colours and adds further accidents of shapes. The ‘cross hatching’ (sweeping brushstrokes at right angles to the previous strokes) also creates a softness which is appropriate for painting skies. This is never easy and requires practice.


Look at the above demo and hopefully you will see what I mean. The time to complete the painting was 1 and a half hours in 1 session. This is compressed to under 10 mins. in the video.

Still Life with Two Glasses

The finished painting

Still Life is a form of painting which requires a different approach compared to landscapes. I like to strongly create an illusion of realism with the marks of creation (brush strokes) in contradiction to the realism we witness. To see daubs of paint which transform into a solid real world is magical.

This requires more colours than I used in the previous paintings. There are no atmospheric effects on the colours so they will be richer with less ‘misty distance’ tints. My basic Burnt Sienna (red), Yellow Ochre (yellow) and Cobalt Blue (blue) does cover the range but each one is helped by stronger colours. Burnt Umber, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.

The basic drawing is simple enough. If you have your subjects positioned and you are using solid objects, as I have, the basic shapes are spheres, cones and cylinders. An interesting grouping or composition of objects is found by moving the objects and observing the scene. I would not spend much time on the initial drawing as it will be covered several times before you are barely started.

Because I like to finish a painting in the one sitting this requires a different treatment when painting a still life. Its the most interesting part of this demonstration. Paint has to be placed on top of previous layers without much mixing taking place. The painting of the glasses illustrates this and is probably the most difficult thing to do ‘wet on wet’. You have one shot to get it right. If I waited a few weeks for the under layers to dry I would have the opportunity to paint the glass and wipe off and try again if I was not happy with the previous attempt. These results, I think, are rigid and hard and not as interesting as the ‘wet on wet’. But if this is what you have to do, so be it.

As you can see from the demo there is an uneven reflective gloss from the surface regardless of the angle of view. This is because there is very little medium in the paint. The colours are ‘dry’ and the brush bristles leave ridges which catch the light. I have to work this way or subsequent paint layers will lift the under layers rather than sit on top. An essential component of this method is ‘Liquin’. I mix it 50/50 with Linseed Oil and use a lot of White Spirits. You will notice I do a lot of vigorous brushing which thickens and makes the Liquin ‘tacky’. I would take a few days for this to happen if I used Oil on its own without the Liquin. When the delicate parts (as in this case the glasses) are in place I then try and reintroduce the brush strokes which are an attractive feature in this painting.

I think the time lapse video is better than the real time, which would require several videos as in the Impressionist Style Painting. This painting took 2 hours to complete.

P.S. I used the handle of a brush to ‘scratch’ an image of the glasses into the underlying wet paint. The brush which had the background colour is then used to remove any scratch marks not required.

An Irish Landscape Painting

Whenever I see a film which has an Irish Landscape included I recognise the look of the sky, the colours, the flavour of the scenes which more often than not are only background glimpses. I love painting this ‘flavour’ of the Irish Landscape as opposed to an actual scene.  It is a collection of cameos lumped together to produce a scene which has a familiarity we almost recognise as somewhere we’ve been. In midland Ireland its the flatness with the distinctive Ice Age sculpted hills on the horizon that does it for me.

As usual I used a very limited range of colours. For red – Burnt Sienna, yellow – Yellow Ochre and blue – Cobalt Blue. You can’t go wrong with these colours. Any combination results in beautiful natural colours found in the Irish countryside. I never use a green from the tube – they all look so artificial. Very rarely I would add a pinch of a Chrome Green or Viridian to a mix of cobalt and an earth yellow (Ochre or Sienna). But only a pinch. These colours, especially Viridian, are so invasive. Is is always the last colour to leave the bristles as you clean your brushes.

On the subject of cleaning your brushes, always, always clean them as soon as you finish painting. My technique is to rinse in White Spirits (the hardware variety), squeeze out the excess with absorbent tissue paper and wash in soap and water. Put a few drops of washing-up liquid in the palm of your hand, rub each brush in turn in the soapy liquid to work up a lather taking care not to break any of the bristles. Rinse out in water and repeat the process. Squeeze out the lather  and repeat the process until there is no trace of the colour remaining. Rinse out again thoroughly and hopefully you will not have to repeat the process. If any paint or soap accumulates, especially where the bristles join the handle of the brush it will cause the bristles to spread and the brush will loose its shape. Its a chore but it makes starting your next painting session a little easier.

This video is condensed down from 1 hour to less than 10 minutes. Its in HD so you can watch it in full screen and stop the video to study any of the processes involved.

I hope you are inspired to ‘have a go’ using this simple fast technique.

Simple, fast, Impressionist Style Painting.

They’re brilliant, inspiring and the results spectacular – the painting demos we’ve seen on YouTube and elsewhere I mean. But if you are starting your career in Oil Painting they must seem daunting. All the colours, materials and techniques, wow! The sketch alone before you start is an gobsmacking obstacle.

This is a simple approach. Keep the materials to the absolute minimum. Especially the number of colours. Mixing colours produces millions of tints.
Remember, you are not trying to reproduce a scene as a camera does. Paint colours are not the same as the colours you find in a computer photographic application like Photoshop which are digital and pure as are the ‘rainbow colours’. The behaviour of pigments in paints when mixed effects the resultant colours. Some colour combinations produce beautiful new colours and others are horrid. The more different pigments in the mix the further you travel on the road to that dirty grey/brown colour.
The colours in this demo work well together. As there are only 3 (black and white are not considered as colours) the number of combinations is small – small enough for you to remember  what produces what.  These mixtures also produce ‘natural’ landscape colours found in Ireland. All parts of the painting have the same 3 colours only the proportions of each are different. For example, in the blue of the sky is mostly Cobalt Blue, but there is a little Yellow Ochre  and a smaller amount of Burnt Sienna. In the darkest parts of the ground are found the same 3 colours with less Cobalt Blue and much more of the other 2. There is also a beautiful harmony between the different areas of the painting.
The above video is in HD (you can play it in full screen) and in 4 parts. The other parts (2, 3 & 4) can be found on YouTube.

Try the technique demonstrated in the videos. Your comments are welcome.

The stuff you’ll need…

Oil Paints – Titanium White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue.
Brushes: As many as possible – Bristle, Filbert or Flat, No. 8 some smaller some a little larger.
Palette Knife: To save the brushes from paint mixing and subsequent cleaning to keep them clean for applying the paint.
Palette: Flat non absorbent surface.
Painting Surface: Oil painting paper, canvas or board. Beware some surfaces are sold as ‘Acrylic or Oil Painting’ these can be too absorbent for Oil Painting.
Media: Linseed Oil, Liquin and White Spirits. Two small containers one containing a solution of one quarter Oil, one quarter Liquin and half White Spirits. The other container White Spirits only.
Misc: Charcoal Stick, Masking Tape, Loads of Paper Kitchen Paper for cleaning brushes or anything else that gets inadvertently ‘painted’.