“Water”. It was an assignment given to the local art group as the subject of a project set a year into the future. I imagined painters mostly using oils, acrylic or watercolor for their media. I was invited to join the group and attend the next meeting, at which everyone would be sharing the results of their efforts.
What would they paint? What kinds of water? Waterscapes of crashing ocean waves? Quiet lakeside ripples along some inland shore? Rain-smeared window’s mosaics?
Karen said, “Make it bigger” at the Cabin Fever Art Exhibit, as she admired my greeting card photograph of a frozen ice sculpture shaped like an angel. “We cancelled our meeting last week because of the winter weather and the make-up session is in two weeks. You could bring that. It’s water. You could bring a larger print.”
Okay, I thought. I can do that. I would like an opportunity to create a larger print. I envisioned using my professional Epson printer and using metallic luster paper to better suggest the texture of ice. I thought I had plenty of time to get around to the printing task. I already owned the paper. Two weeks later, the day had arrived and I needed a print for that night. I still had several hours before the meeting.
I felt jealous of a perceived lost opportunity to study water: to study how to best capture water’s magical ability to bend or reflect light. Painting water is hard. Painting ice is even harder. The textures that make the brain understand whether it is water or ice is in the way water refracts light. The colors aren’t the solid blues of children’s story books. To paint water one must see the subtle gradations of color (be it in blues or grays) that make ripples visible. To photograph water, one must know that light is often interpreted as white and the variations of white are often lost if the picture isn’t underexposed for the brightest highlights that so often delight the human brain. The best days to photograph water, especially moving water, is on an overcast day.
I decided to assess my catalog of photographs taken in 2019 to see what I would learn about my own skills and choices of water as subject. I might not be able to actively study water with my camera, and with a set of preconceived assignments, but I could backwards engineer a study of sorts.
I looked up famous water art on the internet to prepare myself. I found Claude Monet’s impressionist images of lily pads on water. I remembered an image I had taken “on assignment” for the Penobscot River Restoration Project back in 2011. It was an autumn waterscape of lily pads in the foreground set amidst reflections of surrounding shoreline trees. I have gained many new editing skills since then and I wanted to see what I could do with the previous digital information. The image wasn’t as pleasing as I had remembered it. I used my new knowledge of Photoshop’s content-aware tool to delete the bushes in the foreground to gain a different perspective and wished I had the lenses then that I now own to capture the desired crop. I fiddled with it several times before it was good enough and made my new print on metallic paper.
I doubted the painters would be bringing work from other years and therefore wanted something from 2019. The ice angel was taken in 2016 and had been edited many times in different ways to satisfy my different artistic interpretations of her. I knew I would print her today but I needed no further editing to create my print. I still had time to review my images taken during 2019 to discover what kinds of “water as subject” I had found.
I love winter and many of my images of water are of ice: lawn ice, lake ice, and most notably ice that forms on a leaky wooden penstock aqueduct used to generate hydroelectric power (but not in 2019). Last winter, in 2019, I went outside to take photographs only twice, in January and March, and both times in the Kennebec Highlands in Rome, Maine.
January started out warm. It felt like an early spring day. The snow was smooshy soft. The trees were bare and the moist day darkened the trunks and branches into stark patterns against the white snow; white, not gray from city car exhaust! Tree litter made up of seeds often texturized the snow. Who knew the trees let go their seeds in winter?
I found a dead beech leaf sunk into the pristine snow outlined by an orange ice aura, suggestive of life after death. Was it a picture of water? No. The subject was life after death.
Another image from that day was of a tiny green hemlock sapling emerging from the top of a downed tree trunk covered in snow with a wall of sea green ice behind it. Is the subject water? No, it’s the tenacious hemlock.
Below it though, were icy toes. Icicles formed from melting snow and waterfall splash on the tree trunk had been transformed from pointy tips into toe-like shapes from the rushing water below. Subject: water as ice, liquid and water behavior. I had chosen a slow shutter speed to blur the movement of the water below the icicles and consciously decrease the harsh contrast between black water and ice without burning out the white highlights that gave away the frozen nature of that water.
In June I spent a week out on Monhegan Island with a cottage full of painters. Daily walks around the village and onto the island’s many trails produced almost 2000 photographs,, but not much of it about water!
A bypassed jewel from a day considered “lost” caught my attention in this perusal of my images. I remember thick fog enshrouded the island that day. Air made visible in folds of drifts in varying intensities of white blotted out all but the nearest trees, wonderful salt air smells, air made personal as its presence was both visual and physically felt on the skin. The humid air made the colors pop even as it hid features of the landscape. The seaweed was a golden hue against rocks of blue while the ocean waves crashed gently against the shore. I had been disappointed that I had no dramatic sunset or spectacular surf to photograph, just the rocky shore and muted hues of ocean water.
Water as subject is often beaded. Morning dew is frequently captured in art. I had two from my week on Monhegan. For the photographer it is necessary to use a macro lens to capture the details of the light being refracted by the drops of water. I had used the “live view” feature of my camera to enlarge my focal points so that I could adjust my focus to ensure that the coveted beads were tack sharp.
The heavy morning island dew had settled on an orange mushroom protruding from a tree, creating a necklace-like effect. Four women crowded around the tree and exclaimed that there should be a photographer to capture what they were seeing. I walked over to them in that instant and they motioned me over to share their discovery. The beads were backlit, and on my computer screen, I could see inside them were reflections of the ferns growing below them.
Later that morning as I exited the infamous Cathedral Woods path I found a dandelion seed head covered with tiny beads of morning dew. The round beads contrasted nicely against the white spikes of the dandelion seeds. Better yet it was in open shade which softened the light and there were no distracting stems to obscure my view. Is the subject water? Not by itself, but it is the water that makes the images unique.
My walks along the Kennebec Messalonskee Trails in Winslow on the East Kennebec River Trail yielded a July image of greens. A dark foreground in deep kelly green, grass on the ground with an overhanging tree branch encircle an open view of a Kennebec River edge with reflections of the shoreline forest on the water, broken by a gray tree trunk extending from the shore into the river. It’s a peaceful scene. The subject is the water on the shore of the Kennebec River.
A kayak trip into the Belgrade Marsh in August produced iconic waterscape pictures of a pair of loons, a white lily flower and a white feather holding a large drop of water. Photography that day was frustratingly hard as the kayak moved with the wind and my inexperienced paddling. In addition, I was using a camera body I was unfamiliar with in order to extend the telephoto reach of my 70 – 200mm lens. I worried that without a stable tripod my images would be out of focus.
My kayak seat put me too low to obtain angles to crop out distracting details, particularly in my attempts to capture the gorgeous white lily flowers amongst so many ugly lily pads. Water as backdrop made later editing choices problematic because the light had to be consistent with the patterns that lent perspective to the central images.
Water is an integral part of the three favorite images from my kayak trip that day. The subjects are inseparable from the water in which they are found. I spotted a white feather draped against a pickerel flower stem close to an island shore. It drew me like a magnet as I paddled closer to uncover the nature of the round object pinning the feather’s wide tipped end to the top of the water. I discovered it was a huge drop of water. I paddled around it twice to obtain different vantage points, careful and concerned that I might dislodge the feather’s delicate balance against the stem. Water above, water below, but the subject is a white feather.
My final exercise was to capture a pair of loons, parent and chick, as they hurriedly swam away from me and my friend. I knew the loons were too far away to get the coveted images I admired in wildlife photography (with my limited focal length of 300mm). Nevertheless, I clicked away hoping that at least one image would be acceptable.
An August walk onto the Waterville/Winslow bridge crossing the Kennebec River to photograph the train trestle in Waterville yielded an image of foam patterns in the water as it passed close to the automobile bridge because I thought to look down. Subject: water as revealed by the patterns in the foam.
October is a favorite month for photographers (for me and many others). I traveled three times for field trips; to Baxter State Park, toAcadia and to the Kennebec Highlands. What I wanted to find was pitch black water with bright fall leaves beneath the water’s surface. I didn’t find any. My attempts to create artistic water seemed thwarted on these three excursions. Photography is an adventure for me, an exploration into the unknown to seek the gifts of nature “as is.” It’s difficult to value the gifts of a day trip, and to see what is before you, instead of anticipated images running through one’s heart and head.
Baxter State Park was troublesome. It was an overcast day with brief rain squalls in early October, low set clouds and the leaves were already past peak colors. Nevertheless, from Baxter I captured lovely shades of burnt sienna rocks beneath the waters of Roaring Brook on the Sandy Stream Pond Trail. I focused on the water drop on the maple leaf on the rock and let the water be in soft focus.
Mid-October Acadia National Park had surprisingly intense shades of orange and red trees, but not in the fast running streams. I liked the way this small fall of water sprayed out in downy tendrils more characteristic of fabric than liquid.
Near the end of October in the Kennebec Highlands the color was all but gone. A lone oak leaf trapped in a fall of water caught my attention. I used settings to blur the water while keeping the oak leaf in tack sharp focus.
I printed off my collection of images from 2019 on Epson Luster paper, printed my Ice Angel and Monet-like Lilies on Red River Metallic Luster paper and headed off for the art society meeting. I was surprised to see thirty people present. I recognized Karen from the art exhibit and sat next to her.
What did I see exhibited that night from the painters who had a year to study and paint water? I found that some had waited until the last minute to complete their assignments! Some paintings were unfinished. Most were completed works of art; the artists explained that it had usually taken them months to finish. The skills ranged from expert to beginner. Water as part of a landscape predominated: lakes, rivers or ocean. There were a few abstracts. Some painted from real life, but most painted from photographs taken by themselves or found on the internet.
I was glad to be near the end of the presentations; I was the only one to show photographs. I chose to share the Ice Angel and its antecedent to show the stark difference between what I initially saw and what the finished choice looked like. The Wooden Penstock with its frozen leaky ice towers above the ice sculptures near its base. The Ice Angel is clearly visible facing the Penstock with her back turned to the viewer. The finished artistic version shows a closer view of the Ice Angel with the penstock as an indistinct background.
I told them my story of finding Claude Monet’s lily paintings on the internet and passed around my own Monet-like lily landscape. I forgot to mention my choice of metallic paper or that I print my own work.
I’m happy with my backward engineered assignment. It gave me a focus to review my 2019 choices and incentives to improve future ones. The group of artists were a pleasure to meet. An unanticipated perk was that I met my neighbor: a fellow artist, and hopefully a friend for future outings to find artistic worthy photographs to bring home.