Students often ask me how I paint objects in motion from life, such as this wave which I painted on the beach last week while I was on vacation. It’s simple really, you just have to remember that you are painting motion, not a specific wave. I start by observing the movement of the components of the ocean: the foam, the curl, the sea in the distance, the water close to shore. I don’t just look at these components, while I’m looking at them I am asking myself the following questions:
- which parts are darkest?
- where do the shadows fall and how does the shape of that particular part of the wave affect the shape of the shadow?
- what is the pattern of the “lace” on the foam in the foreground?
- how do the rules of perspective, both linear and atmospheric apply in relation to the movement?
- what are the color relationships in the different parts of the waves?
- where are the warm highlights vs. the cool highlights on the foam?
- what is the overall gesture of the movement–is it calm and peaceful or rough and tumble?
After I’ve observed for about 10 or 15 minutes, I then begin to paint. In the painting above, I started by blocking in the dark shadow underneath the foam of the crashing wave, using the negative space to carve out the shape of the wave’s base. Next, I did the same thing with the top of the wave–of course, the wave in real life is a different wave than the one I started with, but the gesture is similar, so it doesn’t matter “which wave” I am painting, because I am painting the movement, not a specific wave. To catch the spray, I put some clear water on the paper where a small part of the foam meets the background of the sea to make it bleed into it a bit. You can also use a spray bottle sprayed in the direction of the spray to create this effect. From here, I blocked in the distant sea letting some of the white of the paper suggest some white caps. On the foam at the bottom of the crashing wave, I put in some pale, cool shadows to suggest the top part of the foam having the most sunlight on it. The lace of the foam on the foreground water follows the rules of atmospheric and linear perspective–the foam is denser where it is closer and fades back into a linear perspective form of zig zags that get smaller as they get closer to the crashing wave.
As you can see, all of the things I painted were answers to the questions I asked myself while I was observing and not painting. This concept can be applied to any subject that moves: cars, figures, wind in trees, etc. Look first, paint after you have an understanding of the motion.