Cap­tur­ing the Mo­tion of Waves

A vis­ual un­der­stand­ing of her sub­ject mat­ter al­lows Karen Black­wood to paint re­al­is­tic and dra­matic ocean scenes

International Artist - - Contents - Karen Black­wood

A vis­ual un­der­stand­ing of her sub­ject mat­ter al­lows Karen Black­wood to paint re­al­is­tic and dra­matic ocean scenes

Un­der­stand What It Is You Want To Say

Un­der­stand­ing what I want to say about my sub­ject al­lows me to de­sign a piece to max­i­mize the mes­sage. As a child, go­ing to the beach was a yearly event. Of­ten, our week­long va­ca­tion was dur­ing stormy New Eng­land weather, leav­ing a big­ger im­print on me than sunny beach days. My love for the sea be­gan with those child­hood sum­mer va­ca­tions and my re­spect for its power came while body surf­ing: catch­ing a large wave, I found my­self sud­denly at the top of a curl. I was pow­er­less, and for that mo­ment “of the wave” un­til it spun me out onto the sand be­low. That day sealed my re­spect for the im­mense strength of the ocean. The wa­ter crash­ing along the rocks and shore was not a light spray; it rolled in and hit the shore with all its power and weight.

A move to the East Coast along the North Shore of Bos­ton al­lowed me to visit the beach of­ten. I knew I would paint the sea, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I needed to walk the shore­line for a few months, see­ing it in all its many moods to grasp what I wanted to ex­press. I was less in­ter­ested in paint­ing a spe­cific site or the per­fectly con­structed wave than I was in the emo­tion it stirred within me. The en­ergy of the ocean crash­ing along the shore is a chance to ex­plore the time­less duel of two op­pos­ing forces of na­ture: the mass of hard, sta­tion­ary rock ver­sus the flu­id­ity of the pow­er­ful sea­wa­ter.

The demon­stra­tion paint­ing in this ar­ti­cle, ti­tled At­lantic Storm, is the lat­est in this on­go­ing se­ries of crash­ing waves. In or­der to paint an ocean that is in mo­tion, I must have a vis­ual un­der­stand­ing of that move­ment.

Study­ing From Life

Plein air stud­ies are an im­por­tant part of cre­at­ing my stu­dio paint­ings of the sea—those stud­ies, and lots of walks along the shore con­tem­plat­ing what ac­tu­ally hap­pens as waves crest, roll and crash. The stud­ies give me a sense of true color and a feel for the mo­tion of wa­ter and the en­ergy it cre­ates. This all gets stored in my mem­ory and is there to in­form me in the stu­dio. With­out study­ing from life, I couldn’t paint an ocean scene that is “alive” with the en­ergy of the sea. The photo ref­er­ences I use in the stu­dio can’t give me that in­for­ma­tion. I use low-qual­ity prints of my scene rather than a com­puter screen or pro­jec­tion of the im­age be­cause I don’t want to end up re-cre­at­ing a photo of the scene. In­stead, I want to re-cre­ate my feel­ings about it, re­ly­ing on my reaction to it in the mo­ment and my mem­ory of its sounds, smells and at­mos­phere.

Com­po­si­tion and Pre­lim­i­nary Sketch

Since I feel com­po­si­tion is one of the most im­por­tant el­e­ments in a suc­cess­ful work of art, I take the time to de­sign the paint­ing with a pre­lim­i­nary thumb­nail sketch.

I start each sketch and paint­ing with an un­der­ly­ing di­a­gram of lines called the ar­ma­ture of the rec­tan­gle. This har­monic de­vice helps en­sure a strong com­po­si­tion with a net­work of in­ter­sect­ing di­ag­o­nals, pin­point­ing the golden thirds, ar­eas of the rec­tan­gle that are vis­ually ap­peal­ing as fo­cal points of in­ter­est. The draw­ing of shapes along those di­ag­o­nal lines cre­ates pow­er­ful de­sign ten­sion, adding strength and a sense of move­ment. Us­ing graphite pen­cils and a smudge stick, I work out my val­ues, look­ing for the larger ab­stract de­sign shapes. While draw­ing I also get to know my sub­ject bet­ter and re­fresh my mem­ory of the scene. I be­gin to see the larger pat­tern of light and shadow shapes as it de­fines form in both the rocks and the wave.

I’ve found that a well thought out sketch gives me a path­way to the fin­ished piece. I can work through many of the is­sues that I will con­front in the ac­tual paint­ing, which al­lows me to be free with con­fi­dence when my brush meets can­vas. I then use the thumb­nail as a guide and re­fer to it of­ten while paint­ing.

Paint­ing the Scene With a Lim­ited Palette

My palette is gen­er­ally a lim­ited one of ul­tra­ma­rine blue, cad­mium yel­low light, alizarin crim­son per­ma­nent, virid­ian and ti­ta­nium white. With these, I am able to mix any color needed to give me the light “ef­fect” that I want, but the lim­ited palette is har­mo­nious be­cause all the mixed pud­dles will have a bit of each color in them.

Us­ing a brush, I sketch the ba­sic de­sign onto the can­vas with the un­der­ly­ing ar­ma­ture and block in the larger shapes with pre­mixed pud­dles of lo­cal color. Some­times I am push­ing a more in­tense color that will peek through fi­nal lay­ers. As I keep adding more paint, I’m build­ing form and a sense of at­mo­spheric per­spec­tive, chang­ing shapes

and sim­pli­fy­ing those that get in the way of the ini­tial in­tent of the piece. I stay open to what the paint­ing tells me it needs, and in this case, I felt it needed more light hit­ting the smaller sec­ondary splash to add to the sug­ges­tion of the stormy sea be­hind it all. I pushed back the warm pur­ple sky by adding a layer of a darker gray mix on top to give at­mo­spheric per­spec­tive. This strength­ens my ini­tial in­tent to make it about the en­ergy and power of the crash­ing wave against rock. Once the paint­ing has the “feel” of what I want to say, I stop and sit with it for weeks, if pos­si­ble, to see if any­thing calls out to me to be changed.

Storm’s End , oil, 18 x 36" (46 x 91 cm) This paint­ing was a wider view than usual for me, but I wanted to ex­press the love peo­ple have for the sea with their man-made houses stand­ing on the hill watch­ful over the storm brew­ing be­low. While seem­ingly...

The Surge, oil, 14 x 18" (36 x 46 cm) This paint­ing was ex­cit­ing to paint be­cause I had ab­so­lutely no idea how to paint it. The thumb­nail sketch gave me the time to break it down and see the larger shadow shapes, so while it looks com­pli­cated, it was...

Rush­ing Waves, oil, 12 x 16" (30 x 41 cm) This was one of those beau­ti­ful days where the sea’s col­ors are as pow­er­ful as its waves. I had to sim­plify some of the shapes so the fo­cus stayed on the rush­ing waves.

Tem­pest, oil, 12 x 24" (30 x 61 cm) This paint­ing has been on a six-mu­seum tour with the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Ma­rine Artists’ 17th Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion. It is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for me, be­cause rather than fo­cus on the im­pact of the crash­ing wave...

Storm On The Coast, oil, 12 x 16" (30 x 41 cm) The work cap­tures the im­pact of the crash­ing wave as it hits the solid rock. The rush­ing wa­ter con­veys the en­ergy of the stormy sea.

Nor’ easter Com­ing, oil, 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) The in­tent here was to show the wet at­mos­phere of the storm and the power of the crash­ing wave hint­ing at the storm to come.

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