Monday, January 4, 2010

Color Underwater

Water selectively filters out colors of light passing through it. Red is mostly absorbed at ten feet. Orange and yellow wavelengths are gone by 25 feet, leaving a blue cast. At much greater depths only violet and ultraviolet light remain.

This effect occurs not only to light traveling downward into a column of water, but also to light traveling horizontally underwater.

A bright red shirt seen 50 feet away through clear, shallow water will appear just as dark and colorless as the same shirt seen up close at 50 feet of depth (above).

Photographers use a flash to restore colors in deep water. The ability of the flash to enhance warm colors also diminishes rapidly with distance. The painting above, from Dinotopia: The World Beneath, shows Devonian sea creatures is if lit by an underwater flash.

The submersible and marine reptiles in this painting are rendered in grays, blues, and greens. All the reds from the brass parts are missing, so those areas appear more greenish. The far sea creatures have lost almost all contrast, and nearly match the background color.

Various impurities discolor water in different ways. Silt or clay gives water a brownish color and visibility drops dramatically. Algae growth, typical of freshwater lakes, gives water a greenish appearance.
Photo from


Sandy Maudlin said...

You are AMAZING! I enjoy your blog.

Mary Bullock said...

Great info, Jim! Thanks so much.

Ainsworthiana said...

Your blog is very interesting -- and I'm not even an artist. Thank you!

Justin Hrala said...


Thank you for this, and many other informative posts. I've ordered a copy of Imaginative Realism, very stoked! Thanks!

Roberto said...

I especially like the various water/lighting effects you used in the ‘the submersible and marine reptiles’ painting. The sunlight-on-the-surface-of-the-water element, the sunbeams-shining-thru-the-water, the reflected-highlights on the critters near the surface, the reflected-ambient-waves-of-light in the lower left quadrant beneath the critters, and the deep-dark-depths suggested by the dark blue/violet in the lower corners of the painting. I also like how you used halos of light behind the main characters to silhouette them and contrast with their dark shadows. Very effective use of the water-effects as compositional elements Mr. Gurney! Very nice painting and great post!! -RQ

Anonymous said...

Some of the most stunning use of these effects I know of is Ken Marschall's paintings of shipwrecks such as the Titanic. They are not "real" - it is pretty much as dark as it gets down there and there would be no way to see the entire wreck - but Marschall makes it look convincing through his handling of the underwater effects.

Markus Bühler said...

The paintings are amazing as usual! I especially like the one with the submarine and the pliosaurs. In my hometown there is a paleontological museum which I visit since my early childhood (and I still discover every time something new). There are also many fossils of plesio-and pliosaurs, including the famous nearly complete articulated skeleton of a juvenile Liopleurodon ferox from the Oxford Clays from which many life-reconstructions are based (but actually when I took a closer look I was under the strong impression that the intervertebral distance is too big and some tail vertebrae seems missing too...):
The way in which colours look different in the sea is really interesting. I have a book in which photos of a saltwater crocodile are shown swimming in the sea, I think it was near the Solomon Islands or so. There are in general only very few photos and videos of crocodiles underwater, but this special one swimming at the sea are really great. The deep blue and the sunlight gave the crocodile a blueish-grey appearance, very similar to the pliosaurs on the painting. But the scales and dermal plates made it looking really quite strange and incredible "prehistoric". If you are interested in this photos I can mail them to you.
I also really like the scenery with the nautiloids. Suprsingly there is only an incredible small number of models and toys of them, so I decided to sculpt some for my own, including a very time-consuming model of Cameroceras based on the BBC-series. I also used my first nautiloid model (sculpting time a bit more than a half hour, painting time with water colours many frustrating hours...) to make some photos of a prehistoric underwater diorama by photographing in front of a page from a book about the prehistoric seas:
I was also very happy to find a copy of the limited signed edition of "Dinotopia - Beneath the Sea" which I imediately ordered.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for the kind words, everybody, and Markus--I always appreciate your insights. You're right that the invertebrates and non-dinosaurs don't get the attention they deserve. I'd love to see those croc photos.

Greg Tatum said...

One thing I've found really effective for underwater effects is the use of refracted light from the surface hitting fish. This light, which you can see on the bottom of a pool dancing around, acts as contour lines and can really make a figure pop out realistically. Also the light from the top is a white light, while a secondary dimmer blue light shines diffusely from the bottom, reflected from the water below. This white light on the top of the figure plus blue light on the bottom can really make a figure pop out in the water as well. I tend to exaggerate this effect in my own work. You can see what I'm talking about here on this shark. Sharks are often brown on top, and white on bottom, but the way the light interacts really changes the colors you would paint them. The effect is more pronounced the closer the animal is to the surface.

Also another effect if you want to mimic underwater photography is that photographers love wide angle and fish eye lens. They get right in front of the animal they are shooting and perspective is exaggerated quite heavily. Viewers expect that as the norm a lot of time. It's one of the few ways (along with flash) a photographer can get good colors on the animals, other than a blue.

Greg Tatum said...

Woops forgot to include the link of the shark as the example. The image was just from a Google image search.

Markus Bühler said...

Hi James, I´ve just sent you the photos.