Drawing Water from an Animated Gif?

After a discussion in life drawing class about painting the complexties of water I attemted drawing water from an animated gif.

Depicting water with an animated gif

During our conversation at A&C Supply about depicting the complexities of water in a painting I recalled this animated gif that I had seen online a week or more ago. I remembered when I saw it I stared at it for a while, and wondered if I could capture the undulations created, and wondered how I would draw or paint them.

Jamie’s very poignant comment was that in order to accurately depict water one would need to draw or paint it from life, as this is the only possible way to capture the truth in its movement. Drawing or painting water from a photo tends to make the water look as still and solid as concrete, and all together lifeless. I would have to agree, but, how does one depict something that is constantly moving?

I guess at some point someone asked the same question of the figure in motion. And it seems like the overwhelming response would be gesture drawing. And even with gesture you have at least a few minutes to capture shapes recognized by everyone; head, legs, arms, torso etc…

With water its all together different, and with clouds also, they always take on different shapes, yet… even though the shapes are constantly different, water always has waves and even though the shapes of waves are enumerable, every one is recognized as a wave. Just as shapes of heads are enumerable they are all still recognized as heads.

There has to be some quality of water that is repeated constantly and can be represented in paint or charcoal.

I’m reminded of Allan Watts.

“The way the animals live, everybody envies them, because look, a cat, when it walks–did you ever see a cat making an aesthetic mistake. Did you ever see a badly formed cloud? Were the stars ever mis-arranged? When you watch the foam breaking on the seashore, did it ever make a bad pattern? Never. And yet we think in what we do, we make mistakes. And we’re worried about that. So there came this point in human evolution when we lost our innocence. When we lost this thing that the cats and the flowers have, and had to think about it, and had to purposely arrange and discipline and push our lives around in accordance with foresight and words and systems of symbols, accountancy, calculation and so on, and then we worry. Once you start thinking about things, you worry as to if you thought enough. Did you really take all the details into consideration? Was every fact properly reviewed? And by jove, the more you think about it, the more you realize you really couldn’t take everything into consideration, because all the variables in every decision are incalculable, so you get anxiety. And this, though, also, is the price you pay for knowing that you know. For being able to think about thinking, being able to feel about feeling. And so you’re in this funny position.”

Allan Watts

All of this chaotic pattern around us everyday, yet, its all perfect, it never makes a mistake.

Anyway, back to the discussion. I proposed, that maybe one of the best tools we could use for depicting water in motion is to draw it from a moving picture. The picture below is an animated gif that is on a small loop. Here we could observer the movements in the photo, the patterns, and capture the true essence of water in motion by making it repeat its chaotic pattern over and over again, so our slow minds can catch up with its complexity.


I believe that this photo comes from this site, as I have just now recognized the watermark, “headlikeandorange”.

Also I must post Frits Thaulow, he seems to be an artist that was positively enamored with water, and painted a ton of beautiful works depicting water amazingly.

Frits Thaulow



  1. Chris, thank you for this incredibly insightful post!

    You know, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this conundrum… and what I ask myself is: how much time do I want to spend trying to paint water exactly how it looks? Or is it more important to me to paint the symbol or metaphor of water and what it represents to me? Right now I am intrigued more with the latter, although some attention to both are always necessary.

    Your quote from Alan Watts is great. He mentions using symbols as part of our downfall as a species… but aren’t they also what give us the means to be human and make great art? Art, like language, is a matter of extracting and personalizing fragments of life. Making meaning with these disparate pieces.

    Look at those reflections on the water… like a shattered mirror. I cannot hope to paint each individual one. I can only paint what has made its impression on me.

    I love the Frits Thaulow paintings! I’ve never heard of that artist. Thank you so much for sharing!

    I do agree with Jamie in that achieving that level of accuracy requires intense observation. It’s so much about getting the colors to feel right. Thaulow really captures that. And all those ripples! To me, those paintings are a beautiful symbol of patience.

    Haven’t tried drawing the gif yet– have you? The movement makes it look more like a lake than an ocean!

    • Thanks for the reply Alisha.

      I believe you have misunderstood what Allan Watts was saying though. His comment on symbols was directed towards our necessity with complex explanations of nature through language and symbols and how we tie ourselves to the symbols rather then doing what is inherently natural to us. I was mainly interested in his comment on how nature is never wrong, even in its vast disorder.

      Depicting water in art is a great example of our need for complex explanations before we can feel comfortable with accuracy in its depiction. The intense study of water and its forms is just a means to an end. Thaulow, captured a representation of water through constant observation much like Sargent captured a representation of portraits through constant observation but each artists paintings were far from a photograph. Through their intense study both were able to capture the essence of their subject with minimal effort or strokes to the painting.

      In order to capture the essence of a subject you need a deep understanding of that subject through continuous observation. Through this intense study an artist can achieve spectacular results with minimal effort, just like an Olympic gymnasts routine looks so easy. But, there if always a limit to a subjects simplicity, if you want to paint a zebra you have to paint stripes.

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