The Depiction of Water in Art

In landscape paintings, water is often a main focus or at least a featured factor – especially in coastal paintings, and, of course, marine art. Water has been represented and stylised in many different ways throughout the history of art.

There is something about water that draws us to it; it has a sort of power that has a mysterious hold on us; this earthly element has attracted the attention of artists throughout time, and continues to do. Why is this and what do the various depictions of water do for a painting?

Aesthetic Focus & Composition

In landscape paintings, water is often seen at the foreground of the scene, say in front of a mountain, often it provides the viewer with a focus and works as a tool to draw the attention of the viewer into the painting itself.

A lake, pond or bay will also add another visual element to the piece, allowing the piece to be split creating various areas of interest – especially if the artist is creating the work of art with the rule of thirds.

Fergus O’Ryan – The Liffey at Sally Gap

In the painting above by the artist; Fergus O’Ryan, water is central to the composition, it is the first aspect of the painting that you notice before taking in the entirety of the scene, and then noticing the trees on the right and the rolling hills in the distance. The style of the piece is fairly painterly, yet representational, which certainly adds a lively feeling to the piece and enhances the rushing movement of the waters. The river in this painting certainly provides a certain energy; if it didn’t exist in the piece, it would have a completely different energy indeed.

In many paintings water is depicted simply for compositional value; it allows the artist to paint using different textures and provides an aesthetical focus for the viewer.

Aquatic Symbolism

Of course, water isn’t only a feature in art to be purely representative; water can also be symbolic, especially when featured in still life paintings or figurative paintings, as it the composition will have been entirely manufactured by the artist.

In both literature and art, water is considered the universal symbol for change – it is forever flowing, and can take any course. Water is also used to symbolise purity and cleansing; this is more apparent in historical, ancient and renaissance pieces than more modern pieces; especially when used in paintings of deities.

Botticelli – The Birth of Venus

Water can alter the entire mood of a representational piece depending on how it is depicted. For example, have a look at the water used in The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (above). The sea is calming and appears to be warming, providing the entire artwork with an overall feeling of serenity, calm and awe. If the sea had been depicted as wavy and frantic; the aesthetic, mood and emotional qualities would be entirely different.

The depiction of water in a painting or any other medium of art can alter how the painting is received by a viewer. Whether the artwork is abstract, painterly, or wholly representative, water is a universally recognised symbol meaning that anyone can view the artwork and take something from it; so long as the landscape continues to inspire artists – so will water.




About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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