Open Ocean Exercise 1: #1

This is the next exercise in Ron Hazell’s Painting Water with Watercolor. I really — really — struggled with this one. Before I go too deep, here’s what it looks like in the book, this is what I’m trying to paint.

In order to paint that, Ron Hazell first provides an exercise on painting waves in the open ocean. That exercise seemed really elementary, and I almost skipped it altogether. But… I’m trying really hard to be a good student, so I figured I would paint it really quickly so I could move on to the full painting exercise at the end of the chapter. I also kind of wanted to breeze through this chapter because I’m not interested in painting the open ocean, it’s not something that interests me. Because I don’t really want to paint the open ocean, I figured I could phone it in on this chapter. Big mistake

Yeah, I don’t care to paint the open ocean. But going through this book is supposed to be teaching me “how to paint.” Period. Full stop. I don’t want to learn “How to paint that picture.” I want to learn “How to paint any picture.” The techniques used to create these paintings can be used on anything, but only if I truly dedicate myself to learning them.

I think I got cocky, and instead of following Ron’s Instructions, I decided to paint something more from my mind. I’ve seen a lot of photos of the waves in the open ocean that are really dynamic. I thought, for my first attempt at painting a wave in the open ocean, I would try a composition that reminded me of those photos. I’d still use the techniques that Ron explains In the book, but instead of a simple and pretty boring composition, I would try my own.

Things quickly started to fall apart.

I started this with the mindset that it was an exercise for an exercise. While I’m trying to be a good student and paint these pictures as if I’m trying to paint a masterpiece (even though they are all just exercises in learning by copying what someone else has done) it is hard for me to care that much about the lessons that lead up to the exercise. This is a problem. I think because I didn’t start by following his lead, I learned some bad habits that I am having a hard time breaking. I also am not terribly interested in painting the open ocean, it’s not a subject that appeals to me – so I found it hard to care enough to follow along with the same kind of dedication I’ve tried to have so far. Anyway, once I was about forty seconds into this exercise, I knew it was ruined. So, I experimented. I tried lifting highlights, I experimented with knifing rain. I tried painting into negative space to make the sea spray on the crest of the wave. Everything failed. If this isn’t proof that you need to learn the rules in order to break them, then I don’t know what would be.

This is what it’s supposed to look like.
This is what I painted.

Once I gave up on that disaster, I decided to follow the book closely. I wanted to just knock out a version of the painting in the exercise, so I read the paragraphs describing each step again, took some notes, and went to it.

I guess it shouldn’t be too big a surprise as this was the first real attempt to paint what he showed, but this was another failure.

The waves are too regularly spaced and shaped. The green highlights don’t look like light shining through water. Instead the waves look like blue and green carpeted pyramids. There is basically zero white paper between the waves which is supposed to become foam. And each wave has a weird white halo around it because I didn’t want to paint into one after I painted it. But, I did like the way the dark (Indie) blue looked. And I liked the effect I got by using the 0 Rigger to make wavelets.

Again, it’s supposed to look like this.
But it looks like this.

I now realized that this super simple exercise was going to take some practice. So, I cut a sheet of paper into quarters with some thin masking tape, and went after it. Another failure. In each quadrant I tried something a little bit different, but tried to follow the explanations in the book pretty closely.

I’m left-handed, so I started in the top right, and painted clock-wise.

I did learn a lot by doing this. Unsurprisingly, I learned not to overwork the painting. And I learned that I needed the values to gradually light as the ocean neared the horizon. I learned that I would need more white space between the waves, and that I still needed to break up the monotonous repetition in the waves by varying their shapes and colors. Finally, I learned that perspective was going to be really important. I put those into practice when I painted this monstrosity.

This is a little better. I have some room between the waves now to try to give the impression of foam, but it still looks like two rows of green and blue pyramids. Man I was having trouble – to think I almost skipped this because it looked too easy.

Instead of starting over, I decided to try to vary things when adding the wavelets. This did help – a little.

I couldn’t stomach the thought of doing another version. I figured I had tried enough times on the pre-exercise exercise, so I went right into the full exercise in this chapter. How many times can I write exercise. Exercise.

First, I tried a value study. I thought part of the problem I’d been having was that I hadn’t tried to sketch out the composition, so each time I was trying to improvise as I painted. Watercolor is great for improvisation, but only if you know how. If you don’t (like me) you just end up trying to fix unhappy accidents.

In the value study I explored giving the waves dimension by exaggerating the value contrast between the lit and the shadowed side. I also tried to change the way the waves connected to their neighbor. Instead of one line of waves, with dark on the left, and light on the right, the waves should be drawn in three dimensional space. The lit side of one wave should be rising from the middle of the shadow of its neighbor.

After I messed with the value study, I sketched the painting on my paper, and applied roughly thirty eleven gallons of masking fluid – because I’m an idiot.

Then, I painted the sky. I wasn’t crazy about the colors Ron recommended, but I went with them. Surprise! He was right. That sky is awesome.

Seriously, that sky kicks ass.

Then I painted the waves, trying hard to follow his instructions. Because I had not yet succeeded in following the instructions on this exercise, I wasn’t successful here – especially given that I had introduced masking fluid for the first time, and didn’t follow Ron’s instructions on the application of the masking fluid. As a result, I finished with a really nice sky (because I followed Ron’s instructions) and a terrible open ocean – because I still don’t know how to do what he’s teaching in this lesson.

I can’t work up the desire to try again – I’m at the point now where this feels like work, and I’m just trying to have fun with this hobby. So I’m going to move on, and maybe try this again later.


The biggest lesson here is: be a good student and just follow the instructions.


2 responses to “Open Ocean Exercise 1: #1”

  1. If you’re interested in learning the techniques behind each of these exercises rather than painting the subjects, you might read Tony Couch’s book “Watercolor You Can Do It”. If you understand why things happen in watercolor it helps. Practicing the various techniques: wet in wet, wet on dry, dry brush etc. will let you look at a painting and see how it was painted. Also it will let you plan the techniques and steps you’ll use to get the effects you want. Couch is very methodical and covers ALL the basics. Couch’s paintings are not my preferred style, but they’re perfect for illustrating the concepts. I love how he simplifies the color palette. I wouldn’t however, follow his recommendations for achieving colors. Hazell’s colors are more vibrant but also not what I would choose. There are whole books on color mixing (I remember reading one by Hazel Soan because I use the Winsor & Newton colors too, but as Couch points out you can find the same color called by another name by any vendor).

    1. Thank you! I’m always on the lookout for highly recommended content I can use to improve. I’ll look it up for sure!

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