Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Water Reflections vs. Ice Reflections

In water refections, the reflected image mirrors the subject at a slightly darker value, deepening the colors of whatever it's reflecting. 

Even in still water, distortions begin changing the reflected image. Verticals remain legible, but they're typically blurred in the vertical direction. Thin horizontal lines disappear.

Tiny ripples introduce wobble into the image, but the components of the image—in this case branches, tree trunks, and sky—are still  legible as separate elements.

How is this different with reflections on ice?

Here are three different photographs taken of a pond at the same time of morning on different sunny days. 

• In #1, the open water is a little more disturbed than in the previous picture, so the ripple distortions are greater. 
• In #2, a thin layer of smooth ice has formed. The range of values of the reflection is less than with the water surface. Where the ice refroze and formed a thicker edge in the middle, it reflects more deep blue color from the sky. 
• In #3, the ice has aged several days, roughening the surface and making it less reflective. The value range is even narrower.

Below are three photos of ice reflections on overcast days. In all three, the overcast conditions reduce the contrast of warm and cool colors, and they all appear more gray.

• #1 is ice with a thin layer of water on top of it. The ice raises the values of the deepest darks, but the water offers a clear reflection of the trees.
• In #2, ice at the edges vs. open water in the middle of the pond shows the difference between the two.
• #3. Older ice reflects the trees as soft dark verticals against a light sky all the way to the far shore. 

The bottom line: Ice reflections are less definite than water reflections. They are blurrier, and they should be painted with a narrower range of values. If you're not bold enough with water reflections, they tend to look like ice reflections.
My book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter discusses reflections, atmospheric effects, and a lot more. You can get it from Amazon or at my website
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A Colonel of Truth said...

Great illustration(s)! The absolute bottom line: Paint what you see (not what you think nor what you think you see). Look closely! Simple as that.

Bonny Wagoner said...

Water reflections are definitely a challenge to capture and convey in a convincing manner.

Bonny Wagoner said...

Water reflections are definitely a challenge to capture and convey in a convincing manner.

Newt said...

Very interesting and helpful! I confess I've never tried to paint ice reflections, or even paid much attention to them. Something to put on the to-do list for next winter (or the one after - we don't get much ice here in sunny Tennessee).

Colonel - I understand where your statement is coming from, but I think there must always be an element of interpretation and of painting "what you think you see". If not, why bother learning how light behaves, or how perspective works, or how bodies and buildings are put together? You could just paint what you observe and it would always be correct. The trick is to get better at thinking about what you see.

Eelis Kyttanen said...

Thanks for this! Great info! Do very dark values get darker too? I am not sure about this, but I remember observing close to black shadows reflecting a bit brighter than they appeared.

James Gurney said...

Eelis, good question. With water reflections the dark values depend on three factors: how much light is shining into the water, how much sediment is in the water, and what angle you're looking at the surface. At dusk when there's no light shining into the water, it acts like a mirror. But if the water is muddy and it's a sunny day, the dark values will be considerably lightened.

Eelis Kyttanen said...

Ahh, that explains it! Thanks a lot James!