Painting Reflections

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IF you have been to sea you may have noticed that the colour of the water was mainly due to the reflection of the sky.

The motions of the wind and ocean currents throw the waves into many angles, which reflect portions of the sky at various lines of incidence. If you cross the Channel, you observe a difference in the colour of the water when you face the sun or turn away from it. You know the water itself is the same, but it has varied with the appearance of the sky. The sea, like the land, derives its tints from numerous causes. The clouds, in all their transformations from dawn to sundown, affect the result, and to their reflections must be added the mutual inter-action of lights and shadows among the waves themselves.

painting reflections, morning sunshine
Morning Sunshine. Painting Reflections.

Have you watched the agitated surface of a rapid stream? It displays an immense variety of lights and darks, more baffling than anything else in natural phenomena. Its movement is so quick, the colours of the reflected objects are so diverse, as to render it almost impossible to portray its interlacing and intermingling forms. Only by the most persistent study, first in a series of drawings of a simple passage, and then of a more involved passage, can you attain thorough mastery of both facts and the method of treating them. Perhaps the simplest stage in the study would be an examination of the reflection of some individual object, e.g. a light-coloured pole standing by the edge of the water. It has, we will suppose, a background of dark green trees, which almost cover the area of its reflections. You will see the contortions of its shape produced by the swift alterations in the surface of the watery mirror. At the base of the reflection, the line of the reflected pole is broken into quivering fragments. This is accounted for by the interruption of other reflections at other angles. You will observe that the movement of the reflected forms are coincident with the movement of the water, and at the edge of the stream the object is more defined; and as it gets nearer the centre it is broken up or confused by the more rapid movement. But, supposing the stream was still, the reflection would be almost a replica of the object. But, if you find it difficult to draw the reflection of the pole, your task is increased when you come to its background. You not only have to represent a light object against a dark space, but a confusion of many colours thrown across the moving surface.

There are other conditions which lend attraction to the study of reflected trees in water. In the case of an absolutely still surface, which reproduces the scene distinctly, the reflected object presents a different figure, owing to the angle of vision of the object itself varying from the angle of reflection.

It is not necessary for my purpose to go very closely into the principle involved. My present aim is to encourage the student to observe, and he will reap ample reward in the many surprises of this fascinating research. From rough to smooth water you will find the reflection altered according to the motion of the water at the surface. Perhaps the most effective point, but not the most difficult to seize, is when the water is slightly agitated by the air, and the reflections are lengthened into long strips of colour to the foreground. The charm of this particular effect is perhaps most striking on large sheets of inland water. The surface may be agitated as to produce lengthy reflections of sky tints, which create a more vivid feeling of liquidity than if the water were still. Take again, the reflected glare of the sun upon water on a sultry day.

* The student might read "Light and Water," by Sir Montagu Pollock, Bart.

The heat has dimmed the mountains with a soft haze, and the sleepy lake lies like an inert mass of molten metal. The very air seems thick with heat, and all about you is a sense of its throbbing pulsation. Nothing seems to move except by the disturbance of the heat waves. A fish leaps, and the broken surface of the water reflects the sunshine in an instantaneous flash. Or you may have seen some floating rushes. The capillary attraction pulls up the water till it presents a reflecting surface to the sun, and reveals an edge of intense brilliance which it would be impossible fully to realise with paint.

Have you noticed also the sun at noon on a hot August day, how its heat fills the air with a quivering mirage, how everything that is seen within a certain distance from the earth's surface seems to be vibrating ? You actually see the heat, and its peculiar effect upon the lower sky, which, practically speaking, is clear. You wish to give the sensation of it in your picture. Every sky which is clear and big with a low landscape horizon gives in a more or less marked manner this sensation along its edge. At the zenith it may be quite calm and pure, a vast expanse of perfectly placid blue, but by noon along the hot fields you observe the heat shimmering and vibrating with a growing effect upon the flat fields, until the figures of the harvesters in the distance, and the cattle and the horses, are distorted by the strange radiation. The sun's reflection is sometimes caught in looking from a height upon a river between the trunks of trees. The light cuts out the substance of the intervening darks, and, in some places, where the trunk is slender, apparently divides it. This glare of intense sunshine cannot be entirely realised. As usual, a compromise must be made, and if that compromise gives you the feeling of the actual fact, then it is justified. I may say in passing, that the white of the palette does not express light. Break it with yellow (not mix it) and you will find that it suggests a higher key, although in reality it is of a lower shade than the actual white pigment. Similarly the juxtaposition of certain pigments, so broken that the predominant feeling of the colours is the same as that of a flat tone, may give one a sensation of vibration, although appearing in the general arrangement of colour values as a flat tone.

Roofs of houses by reflection may reach a higher pitch of light than anything else in the landscape, and make a most interesting feature, and one which probably conveys the idea of sunshine better than any other detail of your composition.

The beauty of reflected colour may contribute much to your design. I can recall the reflection of the sublime Fuji-yama across the water in the Lake of Hara, ending aniid the interstices of the amber rushes at my feet. Beyond the mirrored blue of the sky, the snow peak, and the mystic grey of the shore gleamed a strip of pale rose colour. One would have supposed this to reflect the sky immediately above. But no ; it reflected another part of the heavens. Innumerable wavelets, ruffled by a passing current of air, had caught up the tint of a rosy cloud, and transferred it to a remoter part of the lake.

The reflection from sunlit grass on the under parts of a white cow, combined with that of the sky on its back, is a puzzling thing in paint ; but it is far worthier your brush than the exercise of painting the cow in the shadow of a fold-yard, uncomplicated by reflected lights. I was once asked to criticise a picture of cows under an evening sky, and I made the comment that it was not painted from Nature. " Why ?" inquired the artist. " Because,"A I replied, " you show no reflections of the eastern sky upon the surfaces which would in Nature throw them back to your eye." We admire the beauty of reflection in a crowded street on a wet afternoon. The lamps have just been lit, and they are repeated with many variations in the puddles. The pavement reflects the wayfarer, giving its own local colour and accepting others.

On a bright day there is an enormous amount of reflected light from the sky, which subdues the colour and at the same time raises the pitch of light, the result being the loss of that richness one sees when the sky is grey. To view the full brilliance of colour in any country, you must see it under a grey sky. You have probably remarked the difference in this respect between England and the South. Not only is the landscape greyer by reason of the local colour of the component parts of the landscape, but it becomes so in consequence of the more pronounced light. A scarlet dress in an English scene looks brilliant, but the same object transferred to a street in sunlit Cairo would melt into its surroundings. In Egypt, the glare of the sun is so strong that the houses add to their native whiteness a blazing reflection which defies paint, and this circumstance drove many artists to darken the sky—a conventional device which only defeated its own end. The object which they failed to achieve by this means was to represent the all-pervading light and heat, which lend so distinct a feature to Egyptian scenery. So, again, the physical effect upon one's eyesight of reflected light in the desert, or on an Alpine snow-slope, imparts a sensation which endures in one's memory. But though that glow may be realised partially by words, its brilliance can be much less adequately conveyed by painting.

Note the reflection of the grass upon the trunks of trees near the ground. By painting this reflection you will at once get rid of the hardness which most amateurs betray.

Do what Corot did. Walk round your tree, examine it narrowly, and learn to know it thoroughly before attempting to paint it. Note that not only is the colour of the trunk: altered by reflected light, but every leaf, while always in colour in sympathy with the sky, reflects light and colour according to its surfaces. For example, leaves with an absorbent surface,. as the elm, do not reflect the sky as brightly as those with a smoother surface. And always remember that the colour of a tree is built up by the aggregate of the colours of its leaves. You will have noticed how 'within the shadow of a white-washed wall across a sun-lit street, there gleams the reflection of the shining road. The light is reflected and re-reflected again like an echo. Remark also that the depth of water is indicated by the character of the reflections on its surface. Shallow water reveals the colour of its bed within the reflection of dark objects. Note on a rainy day the hundred phenomena of the wet streets, and you will see things that will come to you as revelations. The other day I saw in a river a submerged boat. I perceived distinctly its ribs and seats.

Without changing my position, when I half closed my eyes, I saw nothing but the reflection of the sky. Upon the same factor of sky reflection depends the just modelling of a tree and its branches, and you should not set out to reproduce foliage before you have conscientiously studied the action of reflected light.

A thousand things in Nature are beautified by reflections, which give animation and vitality. Reflected light makes the edge of a stagnant pond sparkle like a necklace of diamonds. It touches the scythe which severs the dank grass; it illuminates the ferrule of the carter's whip until it glistens like the sceptre of a king; it vivifies your subject, and gives a soul to your picture. It should always manifest its presence. It is easily forgotten in the studio, but not so readily when one faces Nature. There is no excuse for the painter, let his scheme be ever so decorative, who neglects the aid of a quality which often adds to, and can never detract from, the dignity of his work. If I may so define it, it announces the sympathy and unity of Nature.

" Kissing with golden light the meadow green, Gilding the stream with heavenly alchemy."

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