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Some thoughts about drawing boats and their reflections in water

......both smooth water and rippled water

First of all

let us have a think about the way a small boat is built and the various parts.  

You don’t need to remember all the names, but it helps if you know what you are drawing, and if someone who sails, refers to your picture, you know what they are referring to !

LENGTH is pretty obvious - the distance from  front to back  : STEM or BOW ( front ) to  STERN  or TRANSOM ( back )

   That can be the waterline length (usually the shorter of the two) or the length overall ( to the point of the bow )

BEAM not quite so obvious - the distance from side to side  

PORT side is to the left and STARBOARD side to the right

      Old coastal sailing boats often had a steering board to the right hand side which helped keep the boat straight in cross winds when there might not be room to tack, and this also propped the boat up when it was moored up against the quay in tidal waters.  The boat would be moored with the left side to the quay ( the side nearest the port or port side ) and the other side was where the steering board was ( The starboard or steering board side ).

The HULL is the main bit that floats on the water

The GUNWALE ( pronounced ‘gunnle’) is the flat bit along the sides at the top of the hull

The KEEL is the sharp bit  along the bottom  ( some boats have deep keels that stick out and some hardly any )

The FREEBOARD is the distance the Gunwale is above the water.  A liner has a huge freeboard, a raft hardly any.

The Transom is actually the flat section across the back that you often see an outboard motor fixed to.

No doubt there will be sailing experts out there who will pick holes in my explanations - but my excuse is that I don’t sail

- I merely draw and paint boats as part of a land or seascape !

On flat water, like rivers and lakes, many of the boats you will see will have fairly regular shapes and simple construction and you will be able to draw them from the side view with straight lines along most of the drawn edges.  

( see example of boat on the River Tamar at Calstock - below, left )

Seagoing small boats will probably have much more shape as they will be designed to cope with heavy wave conditions so they will be more solidly built and often have more pronounced curves - so your drawn edges will most probably be more curved.  

See the example on the North Somerset coast below right, and at Whitby in North Yorkshire (below)          

We will look at drawing both types of boat in perspective and look at the easy ways to get the shapes right.

First we will have a quick look at a pencil sketched outline of a river type of boat - one which is not severely curved.

The recommendation here is to draw out a rectangular box in perspective, mark the centre line front and back , and draw out your boat within the box.  This way you will get the sides  and curves in correct perspective

and the bow in the middle.

These two examples should give you the idea .......

It all becomes much more complicated with the greater curves of the coastal boat where there can be a very pronounced rise to the bows, as the boat is designed to take rougher weather conditions.  Drawing the curves is complicated by the fact that you are usually looking at the boat from a side angle and the two curves in the hull  ( upwards and inwards ) create complex problems for accurate drawing

There is a way of determining the correct way the curves run  when you look at the boat from the side, front and back.

Here are a couple of sketches in graphite pencil

Look at the way the gunwale flows and the curves appear to go in opposite directions on either side of the top of the boat.  We can describe the shape as a ‘Figure 8’ which has been flattened out.

Let me draw out a figure 8 shape - on it’s side - and develop that into a boat.  You will see that by changing the shape of the ‘8’ and changing the position of the bows and the stern of the boat, we can cover almost any view.

All these early drawn examples show boats hauled up on a beach.  

The waterline views will differ, of course

In figure ‘A’  the basic outline of the flat figure 8 has been drawn.  You will find that most shapes of ‘8’ will produce the top outline of the boat hull, but some will be more suitable than others.  

Practice tells you the best shape.

In ‘B’ I have decided to have the bows to the right and I now need to decide whether the boat is facing towards me ( C ) or away from me ( D).

In ‘C’ I have erased the lower right hand line and drawn in the stern (or Transom )

In ‘D’ I have  erased part of the bow line and erased part of the lower hull line to the left.  In both cases I have then completed the line of the keel

Just to show how the same figure ‘8’ can produce a good outline for a boat facing the other way, I have used the identical outline for the boat top and drawn an alternative hull shape in figure ‘E’

The drawn shape of the ‘8’ is a good guide, but don’t stick to it like glue.  The aim is to provide a master for those difficult opposing curves along the top edges.

Once you have drawn in your finishing lines, any surplus drawn lines can be erased.

Remember that if the boat has been clinker built from overlapping planks of wood, the lines of the planks will follow the shape of the curves.  Look again at the photos near the top of the page,  ‘Rona’ is clinker built, as are the two boats at Whitby.

In modern boat building, you can get glass reinforced plastic boats ( GRP ) that look like clinker built boats - they are simply taken from a full sized mould of a traditional boat.  

Many river and shallow water boats will have smooth surfaced outsides and be built entirely from sheet ply or GRP, and they will have much less artistic interest.


The critical word is ‘IN’

Boats move through water and sit in the water.

They don’t move and sit ‘ON’ it.

Look at the way this foreground boat is low in the water with the weight of the two fishermen and their nets and tackle.

You need to allow for a curve at the waterline

as well as along the gunwale if the boat is in the water - and your eye is anything much above the actual water surface !

The higher your position, the more pronounced the curve.  In the lower image, the water is so clear that it is difficult to see the actual point where water meets air.

Boats are actually wider than you think, as you imagine them.  

They are not all as slim built as kayaks !

Let us now have a think about water and the appearance of ripples on the surface.  

And how those ripples affect reflections and the lightness of the water surface.

The first thing to consider is the way the angle of view of the water surface affects the amount of reflection of light.  If you look at a still clear water surface from a position slightly above the water, there is a point where you no longer look down through the water to the bed of the pool, but see only a reflection of the sky or  view above and ahead.  

The first image below shows that at an angle of around 45 degrees ( not exact - I haven’t measured it ) is the margin where the view changes. At around 45 degrees there is a merging of views - not a clear cut off.

If you get slight waves on the water as is shown below,  the angles of 45 degrees occur it various points and where the angle is sharper than 45 degrees the water will appear darker.  Where the angle is more than 45 degrees the water will appear lighter, as more light will be reflected towards the eye.  This is the reason for those light and dark ripples you see on the water surface

If you have something like a boat reflected in the water, the calculations become more complicated as there are two elements conflicting

In theory we see the image on the left below, but more usually the water is affected by wind and the ripples are irregular so we see the picture on the right, where the reflected image in the water is also broken up by  the varied surface angles

To conclude this brief review of boats and the water they reflect in,  we also need to think about how surface disturbance can throw out our calculations on the position of reflections.

Remember how we said that the reflection of something in the water is the same height as the actual image itself as we see it is above the water, but that the reflection is the view as we would see it from a position under the water.  Therefore if we look at a reflection of a boat, we see the view of the hull from underneath.  Check this with another look at the small boat on the River Tamar at the top of this page.

From the bank we can see inside the boat.  The reflection sees no inside.

It is a common error to be thrown out by a non reflective surface between us and the image.

See the drawing of the two rocks below

There is a section of broken water near to the large rock and that breaks the surface image up.  

The temptation might be to measure our reflection from the edge of the broken water.  This would be wrong.  We need to measure the equal distance from the base of the rock so our reflection in the calm water only shows the top of the large rock.  The small rock is on the edge of the calm water so all the reflected image is shown.

If we get ripples, this will throw out our calculations and the reflected image could well appear much longer than the original as the wave structure is picking up the reflection over a greater distance - as in the drawing of the post to the right.  The width of the reflected post may also be thrown out as well by the water angles.

This is a complex area for examination and I may well return to it at a future date,  but hopefully you will have a clearer understanding of why we see what we see in waves and ripples and reflections of things on the water.

As most of these comments and illustrations relate to producing the image of boats and their reflections in any media - not just coloured pencil - the section is included in General Art Points.

First we will look at the basic forms of small boats

(I am excluding ships from this review),

and then look at how reflections are seen and how they are affected by ripples and how we see water when there are small waves

(I am not covering crashing waves in this section - That is for another day!)

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