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When I’m out sketching a scene, I know that the minute I add a reflection, my sketch will suddenly look “real”. Painting reflections in watercolour from a photo can be interesting and satisfying, but it’s much more exciting and dynamic to paint them from life. Your subject may be snatched from you without a moment’s warning – the sky can cloud over, it can start raining or someone might remove the nice bowl with the beautiful reflection that you’ve been happily sketching. The constant threat of change inevitably results in a drawing full of energy, but it can be very challenging.
I had drawn all my life, but it was only a few years ago that I discovered urban sketching, and I knew nothing at all about painting reflections. I did know, however, that I should use my eyes and look hard, and so my early attempts could have been a lot worse. Just a week or two into my newfound passion for urban sketching, I drew the pool of the house in Mauritius where I was living. The reflections were simply too beautiful to resist. I said to myself that all I had to do was draw exactly what I saw, and it would be okay. It was fine for a first attempt, but the biggest mistake I made was not realising how fast the sun moves, creating havoc with shadows (and their reflections) so they are all wrong in that first drawing of the pool. But I filed away what I learned that day, and the many days of sketching that followed, and between my “field” experience and my determination to look hard, I now find painting reflections in watercolour very satisfying indeed. I hope you find these tips of use when it comes to your field sketches of reflections.
Here’s the drawing of the pool that I did as a brand new urban sketcher:
I was excited by the fact that I could do it, despite my difficulties. Other than the speedily-moving shadows, another tricky thing was inverting the image in the pool. I’m familiar with it now, but it took a bit of getting used to.
A few months later I attempted the scene again, and produced a slightly looser sketch. You can clearly see how indecisive I was in the wobbly lines of the reflected trees, but a pen line is permanent, after all…
All the techniques I’m offering here essentially boil down to “draw what you see”, but the knowledge can prime you to interpret what you see a bit more quickly, to “get your eye in” as we used to say when I studied field geology.
If you can become accomplished with painting reflections, your sketches will dance with life. Only well-done shadows (and their corresponding highlighted parts) have as instant an effect on a drawing as reflections. I hope the tips I talk about here, illustrated by my sketches (and some of the examples I’m showing here are no more than that) will help you capture a reflection in a believable way.
1. Speed: Pick your moment and paint the entire reflection from start to finish. It’s no good trying to match light conditions that are very different from each other – the surface of the water will have changed, the tide will have fallen or risen, the waitress will have snatched away the plate. In this sketch I made of a boat at Mulroog, Co. Galway, I couldn’t believe how the reflections changed every few minutes. (I really must add that it was a scorching day and I dived in to the perfect water when I’d done the painting: it’s got to have been one of my best sketching experiences ever.)
2. Colours: Look at the colours very carefully. The main effect on the colour of the reflection is the motion of the reflecting surface and the clarity of the atmosphere, by which I mean how cloudy it is. The colour of the reflection will usually be a tiny bit more muted than the object itself, but I’ve seen certain colours reflected truthfully. In general, though, the dark colours are a little bit lighter – usually with an element of green or blue added – and the light colours will be a bit darker (see above), so you’ll rarely see white reflected as brilliantly as in reality. The reflection in this painting of a house in Co. Galway was moving a little, resulting in a gently waving line, which added to the authenticity.
The same thing applies in this drawing made near my home in Co. Galway, of a well built of field stone. The reflection here was difficult because for a long time I couldn’t see it – the glaring light meant it was just a black mass that hurt my eyes to try to peer at. Luckily the light changed – I can’t say in what way exactly – and the detail became much clearer. I was worried because I very much wanted to include the reflection and the rainy weather had meant the water level changed every day…
3. Keep it fresh: Try not to be too “tight”. I find that a loose suggestion with a brush, or a quick swipe with a pen, is much more effective than trying to render a reflection in a painstaking way, even if the result isn’t perfect. I also know that the confidence that this requires is easier said than done. In this sketch the reflections of salt and pepper pots and crockery are drawn in the loosest way, with colour added in one quick swipe, just enough to give them form and shape.
4. Look hard: Use your eyes, not your brain. For example, it’s counterintuitive to draw something black by leaving the white of the paper unpainted, but if something is very shiny you can do just that. Here you can see a black granite workshop reflecting dishes: while the reflections are black, the light next to them is making the stone dazzle white. This renders the reflections believable. I’ve also tried to suggest slightly less denser reflections by using cross-hatching of sorts.
And again – I don’t know if the wooden floor in my living room is always gleaming white in the morning, but the light was particularly glaring at that moment, with a sudden flurry of huge snowflakes falling. Looking at it now, I am reminded of the light of that morning. If I hadn’t been trusting my eyes – if I’d tried to over-think it – I would probably have put a light wash of pale brown over the floor.
5. Symmetry: Remember that reflections are almost symmetrical. If an object is reflected on a motionless surface, then its reflection will be almost a mirror image of itself. (The only difference is that you see a little more of the underside of the subject in a reflection than your see at eye level. No idea why.) I can’t say how many times I’ve seen a tree or a mountain reflected at a different angle in the water to that above water. This sketch of a pier in Co. Galway was made on a really still day when the water was like a mirror, but if the reflections weren’t painted symmetrically I would not have conveyed the scene well at all.
6. Break the reflection: Use spits of land to your advantage. I have often noticed that a strip of land splitting a reflection in two is very effective – perhaps because it’s more pieces in the jigsaw for the viewer. In this sketch a strip of sand cuts a reflection of an orange oyster crate in two…
and the same situation here cuts up the reflection of the quay –
7. Uneven surfaces: Unless the reflecting surface is perfectly uniform, each part if it will reflect the subject differently. That’s why the shadow of a person standing in the sea looks a bit choppy, like this painting I did of Mauritians enjoying a dip on Independence Day:
and why the reflection of this sofa has a jagged edge – it’s because the floorboards have yet to be sanded (they are reclaimed) and so they are very uneven.
8. The best reflections: It’s very nice to sit on a beach in warm sunshine and paint boats bobbing about on clear water. That’s why I’m suggesting a specific reflection colour – the apple green of the reflection on water of the white hull of a boat, which becomes a bright lime green just before the hull starts. This is certainly the case where the water is turquoise…I’ll just have to make a field trip and find out if it applies to other colours of sparkling sea too…poor me.
So there you have it: if there is one tip I could leave you with, it’s the same one I drone on and on about…use your eyes, not your brain – once you’re before your subject. By all means learn how the physics of reflections works: but everything I’ve written here has been learned as a result of looking, looking and looking again. I wish you lots of pleasure when you’re doing the same.
Limited Edition Giclée Prints Featured in this Article
Some limited edition (hologrammed) giclée prints, using archival ink and on heavy watercolour paper are available in our shop, including :-
Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend
My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-
or in the UK and EU :-
I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-
or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-
There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-
The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-
or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-
The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-
I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-
I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-