Thursday, 23 October 2014

Painting the underwater world.

Painting underwater, trying to capture the light & atmosphere & the creatures that inhabit the sub surface world is one of my greatest joys. The reason is simple, to experience first hand this watery world, its inhabitants ( not always easy to get close to ) & the hauntingly beautiful sub surface landscapes ( or should that be waterscapes ) & the light, always the light. It is a privilege & a necessity to actually get in, get under & observe if you are going to have any hope of portraying what you are seeing with any heart & soul.
In the early days, by which I mean my first efforts at underwater subjects, I did not gather reference from first hand experiences. Instead I sketched from programmes from the TV or used photos i'd seen in fishing books as reference material. One of my first efforts was a painting of a Pike which I'd taken from an old photo from a fishing book. I obviously didn't want to copy the photo as it was in black & white for one thing & I also wanted to change the light on it so it would fit into the surroundings that I had planned for it. It was a hideously ugly painting & never even got as far as being framed. The problem was that I hadn't had any actual experience of seeing Pike underwater & personally I think the painting failed because of me trying to run before I could walk. I have some slides somewhere of another Pike painting that did make it into a frame but as it was such along time ago I look back on that one & cringe with embarrassment.
Many moons ago I used to exhibit in Fountain Fine Art gallery in Llandeilo. It was when Gillian Still owned & ran it, the glory days of the gallery & some very happy memories of those times. Gillian put on a themed exhibition one year, the theme being water. This was my first opportunity to paint a series of paintings underwater. I chose this as I knew that all the other Artists would be painting above the surface & taking a more traditional view. Its still one of my favourite exhibitions that i've ever taken part in & although technically i'm a much better painter now, I think for ideas & subject matter & composition then it was one of my early successes & people seemed to enjoy the unusual little paintings that I did for that show. Some were of Ducks & Grebes diving, many were of stones falling through water, twisting & turning as they fell, leaving a trail of mercury like bubbles behind them & the others were of views through water into rock pools.
It may surprise many of you that know my paintings, the way I try to portray realistically the subjects that I choose & how I like to ( if I can ) infuse my paintings with light, that I do enjoy other forms of painting. I used to paint in a number of different styles & over the years I have honed my skills & the paintings you see today have developed over time to become identifiable to me. Although I don't always see it, people will often say when viewing a painting something like " thats a classic Cowdry painting." So I must be developing an identifiable style. This little painting below is an early one & was a painting loosely done, quickly with no emphasis on light or detail but rather to just get an impression of the scene. Its of a diving Grebe which I sketched from a TV programme & although it would never win a prize, I still like it & it hangs on my own wall.

A very early impressionistic Grebe diving underwater.

Over the years I have been getting in & under the water more & more & the experiences are increasing especially as my collection of gear to aid me in my underwater quest grows. A good friend sadly died a few years back & in his Will he left me a little money. I was determined to get something with it that he would have approved of & being very fond of wildlife himself & always supporting me in my own career I decided to buy a waterproof housing for my camera. Its a great piece of kit & slowly but surely I am gathering a good set of pics to aid me in my underwater paintings. Its a very slow process though gathering reference for paintings. One thing i've learnt is to take your time with the underwater stuff. I don't mean the painting itself as I like to paint fairly quickly as this helps to keep it fresh. What I mean is to let the ideas literally swim around in your head for however long it takes to gather the reference needed. Some of the paintings that I want to do have been forming in my head for years & I know that it will take even more years before I can even start them. This doesn't worry me at all, i'm a patient person & love a challenge. There are some though not many artists that specialise in underwater paintings & personally I don't wish to specialise in one area, preferring instead to dip in & out of the many subjects that interest me. Occasionally I will want to paint an underwater scene & when I do ( we are talking in the future now ) I want to paint it in such a way that although the subject matter may be the same as other artists are doing, the painting will ultimately be ' classic Cowdry '.

'Curious Perch' oil on linen
This smallish painting is of one of my favourite fish, the Perch. I have some big ideas for some Perch paintings, full of atmosphere, light & space but it will be sometime before anyone sees them because of the slow process of collecting the reference material. But thats all good as it lets my ideas develop & to hopefully get even better. These paintings that I have planned are purely for me to indulge myself in as I do find it harder to sell my larger underwater scenes although personally it is I feel some of my best work. Somebody will love them & give them homes one day. The one below is one of my best but it still hangs on my own wall.

'Sunlit pool, River Sawdde' oil on canvas
Otters are such lovely creatures but not many artists have attempted to capture them in their element. A couple of years ago I tried just that with varying degrees of success. Using photos i'd taken at an Otter sanctuary in Dartmoor & tying these together with photos i'd taken in my local rivers I managed to paint quite a few different underwater Otters. Great fun & I plan to do lots more. Heres a small selection of them.
'Into the depths, diving Otter' oil on canvas

'Playful Otter' oil on board
Like I said earlier, its the being in & under the water for me thats the big attraction & none more so than when i'm in the sea. Below is two paintings, both painted in the same week after a day trip to Skomer island. One is a little more detailed than the other & one a little looser & more quickly painted.
A painting of diving Guillemots & a Razorbill in the beautiful emerald & turquoise waters around Skomer island. I love this painting, not because I think its fab or anything like that but rather for what it represents for me, how it makes me feel. So many magical, delightful hours spent hanging around, bobbing & floating in the salty water watching these graceful birds doing their thing. On land they are not so full of grace, looking more like a drunk negotiating their way back to the bar, but in the water... Wow! thats the element they were born to. As I hang in the sea gazing in awe at these birds I find myself feeling somewhat self conscious having just about squeezed into my wetsuit & flailing about like a one legged Frog. As the birds become bolder they swim nearer & at times they dive all around you, enveloping you within a cage of silver bubbles & each bird jacketed in mercury. As they dive down below & out of sight they have to beat their wings much harder in order to stay down to find some food. Slowly & with lazier wing beats they spiral back to the surface.
I do like this painting for some of its other merits too. The illusion of space & depth I feel has worked ok & the light below the water i'm happy with. Cant quite believe that I painted this over six years ago.

'Diving Guillemots & a Razorbill' oil on canvas
'Diving Razorbill' oil on canvas
Among all the subjects that I like to paint its the underwater ones take me to another world & I love spending time there. When I do get around to painting some of the ideas that are floating around in my head, they will be some of the best that i've ever painted but i'm sure that they will still be tricky to sell, after all who wants a 6ft painting of a shoal of marauding Perch. Well I do for one. Oh & before I go, I have had first hand experience of Pike now & the idea for that one makes me drool every time I think about it so watch this space. Its going to be a cracker.


Mike Woodcock said...

Lovely stuff David. Underwater or otherwise there's simply no substitute for getting out there and experiencing the reality. That's why I don't paint Tigers or Elephants...Yet!

Anonymous said...

This is incredibly beautiful. I didn't realize how I never see underwater paintings really until seeing your work. I image it's to do with most people being unable to. Well done!

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of you sat on the bottom of the sea, easel in front of you, paints to the right, brush in hand and hair floating in the drifting water (no, scratch that last bit!) Mo

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