One of my favourite techniques for dealing with those troublesome foregrounds is the vignette method, which can be equally effective when used on watercolour sketches. This is especially true when you don’t want to include every bit of detail in front of you. The method can be carried out with a softening effect as though the viewing frame becomes more and more misty as it gets further away from the centre of the composition, or it can be accomplished by abruptly stopping detail while adding a few stray examples – perhaps stones, pebbles, grasses, plants or whatever is present, in the foreground.
In this example of a cascade plunging between rocks I’ve simply splashed in a few hints of falling water with weak French ultramarine, and to the left-hand side have spattered some flecks of paint. The rocks have been faded out, although the method works equally well by rendering a few strong, hard-edged features at this point. If you find the latter method is too strident you can softly sponge away the hardness with a natural sponge and clean water until you achieve the effect you are seeking. It’s also a useful technique when you are out sketching and see those heavy rain-clouds approaching and need to finish it off at speed! Try it out – you have nothing to lose, as if you feel it doesn’t work you can always superimpose a more normal foreground over it.
I like nothing better than to follow some bubbling rill up a mountain – it makes a delightful companion and almost always will lead me to a superb painting subject. Some of my most memorable moments in the hills has been climbing up a gill or gorge, staying as close to the water as possible, and often right in it! The combination of rocks and tumbling water I find irresistible, and in the current (July) issue of Leisure Painter Magazine you will find my article on painting moving, tumbling water.
The image shows part of a watercolour from my Mountains & Moorlands in Watercolour book, where a small cascade is falling between rocks. Painting cascades and waterfalls is all about contrasts: the contrast between the hard edges of rocks and the soft ones of the falling water where it passes in front of those rocks; and that of the white, aerated water against the wet, dark rocks. Too much of one or the other will weaken the effect. I also often break up the vertical elements with a small tree or branch, or perhaps a sprig of heather drifting in front of the falling water.
The preponderance of cool black – grey – blue – white can induce a feeling of cold austerity in the eye of the viewer, so in the above painting you will see that I’ve included a splash of red in the bottom right. One final tip: a few small flecks of white against the dark rocks and close to the falling water creates a sense of movement and splashing. You can do this with deft stabs with a scalpel, a few blobs of white gouache, or by spotting in some masking fluid before you start the painting, to reserve those tiny whites.
Another final tip: waterfalls are at their best after heavy rain, so get out there while it’s still sloshing down for the best images, but be sure to keep all your accoutrements dry!!!