Monday, May 29, 2006


Water has always presented a special challenge for artists. It has no consistent shape or color. It does not reflect light or cast shadows the way solid objects do. In the picture above of a shipwreck and the following picture of a placid river, illustrator N.C. Wyeth captures two very different examples of water's temperament.

Water refuses to hold still like a bowl of fruit on a table in your art studio, so painters have gone to extraordinary lengths to observe it. J.M.W. Turner famously lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a storm at sea so he could experience the power of water. Renowned illustrator and maritime painter Stanley Meltzoff is a long time diver. Meltzoff's immersion in his subject pays off in vivid, exciting paintings. Note the marvelous abstract design in the interplay of light and water at the top of the picture:

Illustrators over the years have employed a fascinating variety of approaches to water. For some artists, water seems to serve as rorschach test. They have to reach deep into their own personal taste and style to create form and shape and content for water. In the following picture illustrator Robert Fawcett (who was a first rate draftsman but unfortunately color blind and a second rate painter) tries to capture water by painting it as if it were a line drawing:

When Maxfield Parrish wanted to paint water, he often used a mirror for reference, rather than studying real water. The result was a picture of water as artificial as Parrish's candied, fantasy style:

Of course, Frank Frazetta painted water using his own trademarked formula:

Strikingly different methods of depicting water have also been adopted by animators (ranging from Pinocchio and Fantasia to the Incredibles) and by Japanese woodblock artists such as Hokusai. I would be interested in input from readers on additional artists and approaches.

In my view, the most impressive maritime paintings today are being produced by Meltzoff:

I recently read Meltzoff's views on the creation of art underwater. He wrote
Underwater it is somewhat as if Tiepolo were doing free floating and flying mythologies in the water instead of in the air and illuminated them with focused sheets and bands of strobe lights. That is what makes it so interesting for me to dive.
I will devote my next posting to some of Meltzoff's insights.


Blogger leif said...

Wow! What a fascinating topic, David. The thought of seeing someone actually painting underwater, as you describe Meltzoff doing is... surreal!

Since you've invited your readers to contribute other artists of interest who have interpretted water in their own unique way, may I suggest this piece by Al Parker, as well as this one which I think its safe to say was a not very successful attempt at photo collage of a sort.

And finally, I'm quite fond of this forbidding piece by CE Monroe Jr.

5/30/2006 7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The animation of water in Miyazaki's Porco Rosso was tops IMHO.

5/31/2006 12:14 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Leif, if you want to see a photograph of Meltzoff painting underwater, you can find it at I would have thought such an approach was a little extreme, but I can't argue with results. His paintings really take you there in a way that few others do.

5/31/2006 11:32 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I have not seen Porco Rosso but I know there is a book about the art from the film and I will check it out.

5/31/2006 11:37 AM  
Blogger Owen said...

Great post. The Meltzoff paintings are really wild.

5/31/2006 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the Wyeth, his painting of reflections makes Parrish look like crap by comparison. Meltzoff's art is cool. What else did he do?

5/31/2006 10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess Meltzoff uses water colours huh? O.K. I'm sorry but you were all thinking it!!! My parents had a painting (copy) by Ludolf Backhuysen, a Dutch artist from the 1600's (I think) Ships in Distress was the title and it always amazed me. The waves the power of the storm, how anyone could paint that without being killed in the attempt...Also of note was Charles Schulz and the pride he took in drawing rain, seriously it was only ink on paper but I was convinced. Also didn't have the time to comment on the Ditko piece but I wanted to say I was glad to see you selected an image featuring his 'hands' He is always noted for his 'eyes' but I've always loved the hands. Craig

6/01/2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger John said...

This is a fabulously inspiring blog David, you're definately a man after my own heart!

Very happy to have stumbled across the jewels you display.


6/03/2006 4:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, something I always mean to ask but forget to include in my do you decide what to discuss? And how the heck do you make the time? As Lief said, this is a facinating topic. Being an Art niave, I recognise the experiences once they are pointed out to me, but don't think in these terms on an ordinary day. Certainly Art has made an impact on me in the past, but you make me think I need to read and educate my self. Suggestions? Catherine

6/03/2006 6:10 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Craig / Anonymous, I just tracked down your Backhuysen painting and it is a doozy! I can understand why those swirling waves would leave a permanent imprint on a young mind. I also love the work of Turner and of Aylward, a maritime illustrator from late 19th century.

Glad you're a Ditko fan too!

6/03/2006 9:21 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

John / Anonymous, so happy there is another kindred spirit out there. Thanks for your comment, it means a lot!

6/03/2006 9:26 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Catherine/anonymous, the topic of underwater scenes came up recently when my young daughter and I painted a mural of a Caribbean coral reef on her bedroom wall. She picked the subject and-- while the result doesn't look anything like Mr. Meltzoff's paintings-- she seems to like the result.

6/04/2006 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey! I was going to mention J.M.W.Turner too! but I thought I was getting to wordy. Every time I see Turners work it reminds me of Bill Sienkiewicz of all people. Glad you liked the Backhuysen, so many great and almost forgotten painters out there!Well, I'm off to check out Aylward, thanks for the tip, Craig

6/06/2006 12:09 AM  
Blogger John said...

Wonderful undersea paintings, they really encapsulate the scuba experience (something I've not done for quite a few years)... and such wonderful use of light.

Maybe I should just hang up my brushes now and think of an alternative career :)

Here's one of my favourite Arthur Rackham water pieces (from Wagner's Ring), just to prove that in the hand of a master water doesn't have to be painted realistically to carry it's effect:


6/06/2006 12:30 AM  
Blogger John said...

Sorry, try that again:

6/06/2006 12:34 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks for the Rackham images, John, I enjoyed them. Edmund Dulac also had some excellent water scenes from around this time.

6/06/2006 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11/08/2006 11:24 PM  
Anonymous szy said...

May I suggest spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla?

Some examples of his water painting skills.

3/12/2007 6:35 PM  
Blogger promoteyourblogforfree said...

nice blog

8/07/2007 11:29 AM  
Blogger wall-art-paintings said...

I really enjoyed your post about painting water! Paul Leasure is a painter of water. His perspective is usually up close and personal. Reading his comments about various paintings one can see why they really get the sense of being "right there" on the scene. He has spent years standing at the waters edge observing with a desire to interpret. I was personally impressed with this work of art decorating my wall. Check it out : )

12/29/2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger neil jeffery said...

i'm a few years late to join this discussion but i would like to add david hockney as an incredible painter of water.
he did many paintings of swimming pools and represented water in a variety of methods and styles- definitely worth checking out!

8/08/2009 5:19 PM  

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