The beauty of underwater landscapes and the serenity they offer can be created similarly to creating an above-water painting. The techniques used to create the illusion of being underwater requires the use of value scales, light perspective, reflective light and good composition. Applying thin layers of paint called “glazing” will help achieve a cast color to help unify your underwater painting. This application can be used on canvas, panel or even as a mural on a wall.
Light Under Water
To recreate light underwater, you’ll need to consider light perspective or the angle of the sun as it breaks the surface of the water. Water gets darker the deeper it gets, because light cannot reflect in a dark environment. Ultramarine blues or pthalo green can be mixed with dark violets to become darker toward the depths of the sea or ocean.
However, if you are painting an object that is near the surface of the water, light from the sun shining will reflect onto the object, which means a contrast in values of lights and darks. Anything underwater will be a bit darker, though glints of light from the surface painted onto objects under water will make them appear more realistic.
For example, if you are painting a fish just under the surface of water, go ahead and finish the fish, let it dry, then go back and paint the abstract shapes of light reflecting on the body of the fish. The abstract shapes may resemble the shapes on the surface of the water (ripples in the water) for continuity.
Breaking the Surface of Water
In painting an object, such as a rock, that is half in water and half out of water, the color will change. The part of the rock out of water should be a lighter value as it is not wet. The part of the rock underwater, if seen, should be at least a couple of shades darker of the same color that you used on the dry part of the rock.
Where the rock meets the water, there should be a breaking point, which is usually a shadow and a highlight such white or light yellow. (Burnt umber mixed with ultramarine blue creates a lush black for shadows.) If you painted using an under color, allow some of it to show through as a highlight.
Glazing is a technique of applying thin layers of paint and allowing them to completely dry prior to adding the next layer. The best surface to glaze over is a smooth under-painting, either created in a gray scale from white to black or in a scale made from raw sienna. Use the under-painting to map out your composition, showing all of the values in your painting. Then, color block your underwater scene, from mid-tones to shadows and finally highlights in any color you desire. The under-painting can show through as a highlight, which is often brighter than using white. The values used to represent underwater should shift from light to dark values as the water gets deeper.
Mix a tiny bit of your pigment with stand oil, which is an oil paint medium that can easily be glazed with. Your paint will resemble watery colored glass. Use a smooth, soft brush to glaze on your colors, one at a time. Allow each layer of glaze to dry before attempting to apply another layer.
Paint in the vibrant colors of your creatures or scenery under water. Then, after they are complete and dry, if you would like to continue with a blue color to unify the underwater feel, mix up a batch of a light blue or green that does not have white in it and, using a large, flat, soft brush, glaze over the entire underwater scene to unify all tones.
You may also consider using a darker color blue or green, thinning it out with stand oil. You can paint as many layers of this unifying color as you wish. If you want some objects to appear to be farther in the distance, layer more of this color over those objects.
Ellen Dean is a visual artist and painting teacher. She has been teaching and writing articles on art since 2001, and has been a professional artist since 1999, (ChadwickandSpector.com), after studying sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is an NYFA Fellow and was nominated by the Sovereign Art Award/Sotheby's Hong Kong, two years in a row.