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How to Paint a Figure Underwater

'Rebekah' by Elise De Silva

I'd been wanting to paint a scene like this for a long time, but with all the COVID restrictions, getting access to pools or the deep ocean was pretty much impossible. However, our family bought a boat not long ago, so I finally had the opportunity to take some photographs of my girls swimming in the beautiful Waitemata Harbour here in Auckland, New Zealand. Here is the original photograph.

Original Photograph of Rebekah Swimming

After posting on social media, many exclaimed, 'How?!' Well, I'd like to share with you a bit about that so you can give this kind of subject a go too.

Stage 1 - Observation and planning

This is probably the most important part of the project. I spent so much time just staring at this photograph. Staring might not be the right word, although that's probably what I looked like I was doing. It might be more accurate to say I spent hours studying it. A subject like this can seem overwhelming, but if you break it down to colours, shapes, highlights and shadows and see all the different component parts, you begin to get an idea of how to break it down into an actual painting. When you can see ripples as just colours and shapes you begin to realise, hey, I CAN paint that.

The next part of this stage is planning. Careful planning is absolutely essential to the watercolour artist. Oil and acrylic artists might do a bit of drawing then throw in a few darks, but then they have a lot of freedom to paint what they want, when they want. As watercolour artists we have to think in LAYERS. We are working in reverse, working from our lightest tones to our darkest tones. We also have to plan in how we will achieve clean washes whilst allowing for details. My biggest challenge with this painting was going to be (and was) the final layer of deep sea green. It is a large area to cover whilst having to add all the fine ripple lines around the body. I definitely needed a plan to tackle this part of the painting.

Stage 2 - Drawing

Quite often I will print and trace a subject if I am a bit nervous about getting it right (I'm actually not a great drawer). But this time I wanted to go for it and do it old school. I have a grid app on my iPad, so I made my paper proportionate to that and got my drawing done. I then covered the back of my drawing paper with 3B graphite. I then traced the image on to my watercolour paper which was approximately 70cm x 45cm.

Drawing using grid system

Stage 3 - Masking Fluid

One of the keys to a great watercolour is to use the white of the paper as your white. Traditional watercolour does not paint white areas in, although it is common practice to add a bit of white gouache here and there to reinstate a highlight or two. This subjects has A LOT of highlights, so I needed to do a lot of masking. I just took my time and got the job done. In the areas around the legs I did some random flicking. The more I looked at the subject, the more highlights I saw. But all the sparkle is what really makes the picture, so I didn't hold back.

After masking, I did lift off some of the intensity of the pencil with a putty rubber, especially around the body. I did leave the pencil marks in the ocean heavy as I knew I may loose them with the ocean wash otherwise.

Masking fluid applied

Stage 4 - Body in sections.

Before I begin painting, I always like to work out my colours. This gives me confidence to move ahead when I begin painting, rather than try and figure things out on the fly. I also may need to make a large wash, so it really helps to know what colours I will need so I don't waste paint. You can see my little colour swatch in the right hand corner of the photograph below.

As I am working light to dark, the best way to approach the figure was to do the lightest areas and then move to the darker areas. So I started with the arms and legs. Then I moved to the swimming costume, then the hair. And again, in each of these sections, I worked from light to dark, laying down my lightest tones and building slowly up to my darkest shadows. This is where my observation skills were really tested. I tried to see the shapes and colours made by the ripples and paint what I saw, not what I think I should be seeing. It also helped to take a moment, and view my painting from a distance, then I could see that some shadows needed deepening or that a shadow passing over both legs needed to be more connected. It's easy to get lost in close up detail and not remember to step back and see the artwork as a whole.

You may notice that I painted her arms and legs 'outside the lines'. I did this to allow for some colour refraction caused by the ripples. I knew I would be covering up most of it with the ocean wash but I liked having room to add more waviness.

Stage 5 - Ocean

This was honestly the trickiest part and I had my heart in my throat nearly the entire time. I had to remember to tell myself to breathe!

I made a large mix of my ocean highlight colour, a nice bluey turquoise. Before applying it I painted clean water about a cm wide all around the figure. I didn't want to have any hard lined edges drying near her. I was happy for the colour to just melt around her as I knew I'd be coming with the heavier final wash later.

First Ocean Wash

After this wash was completely dry, I mixed up my final sea wash. Now this is the part that gave me heart palpitations. If you have painted with watercolour you would know that doing large washes is a challenge because an area can dry before you've had a chance to come back to it, and will therefore leave unsightly lines or 'blooms'. I decided to use the ripples as natural section dividers. I began with the two sections of water between her arms. This was a good place to start because I could test my colour on a small section and make adjustments before embarking on the larger section. It also gave me a bit of a practice on how I would paint the ripples.

I began on the right hand side of the painting, ensuring that I had a large bead of paint to keep the wash 'alive'. I quickly painted around the body then moved around to the bottom right hand section and stopped where the ripple forms off her hand. I then moved back to the top left and worked my way around the head and bottom left. I was super happy to pull this off.

Once the main wash was done, I was able to go in and paint some of the sea wash where it was on the actual body like in her left arm and around the right leg.

The finished painting

Stage 6 - Removing masking fluid

Once everything was completely dry I removed all the masking fluid. I softened the edges around the highlights at the top left handside and some of the sparkles on her bottom. The rest I just left as is.

Stage 7 - Glass of wine!

If you have any other questions about this process, don't hesitate to ask. I wish you all the best with your creative journey.

A short process video

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