Last Wednesday, the stillness in the brightening morning air was extraordinary and I sat painting, mesmerized by the vivid reflections on the quiet pond beneath the lifting fog. I was painting the water, at least I thought I was painting the water, but then my attention turned to what looked like the shape of a bone, a familiar shape, part of the spine or the pelvis. I followed that shape, and articulated it as it was drawn against the bank of trees before me. As my painting developed, I realized that I was not painting water but a reflection. But no, I was not just painting a reflection, but rather the shape created when the reflection and “reality” came together.
I watched as trees and branches greeted themselves in reflection at the pond’s edge to create new shapes, two worlds seeming to collaborate. These new forms spoke not only of the still water and the things reflected, but of the nature of reflections as well. The shapes also revealed mysterious patterns and hidden connections. Even though these revelations are wrought by water, when it is still and quiet the water itself remains hidden, almost invisible. It is the most important element of the view and yet the most humble.
As I think about water more deeply, I begin to understand truths about our visual experience of water. First there is not a prescribed answer to the question “how do I paint water?” I believe that although many people try, representing water cannot be reduced to a formula. Like so many other things, when we reduce them to formulae we lose them completely. A water element in the landscape is endlessly variable and unpredictable. The appearance of water is dependent on context (which is to say all aspects of the physical environment) almost entirely. Paradoxically, although a reflection is considered “unreal” compared to the real thing being reflected, observing reflections can give us greater knowledge of the environment than observing the thing itself. Everything is revealed: the atmospheric humidity, the speed of the air and the angle of the sun. Water reminds me of the liquid, dynamic quality of reality, how everything can and does change with a breath of wind.
Water is never alone, disconnected or singular and it can’t be painted as such. Even a waterfall has the company of the sky. Visually, to observe water in the landscape is to observe relationships. Every physical and energetic element makes an impact on the appearance of water and water, the bringer of both life and destruction, makes an impact on everything.
In this way, painting water teaches me to see and think in holistic terms. It reminds me that nothing can really be seen out of context and apart from its environment. Everything is a part of something greater and what we see is not one thing but a web of relationships that we and our paintings are part of.