“An incredible experience in learning the art of painting! Would not have missed this! John MacDonald is a superb teacher and dedicated artist.” – Steve and Judy Puthuff, Calif. participants in John MacDonalds 2016 workshop at the Casa

Johns Studio

Visit John MacDonalds’ Studio, click here

When I was putting this blog together I received an email from John, (very synchronistic), with a link to a video on Eric Rhoads Facebook, (among other things, Eric is the publisher,  of Plein Air Magazine), where he had posted a video interview with John at his studio, (located about an hour from me in Williamstown, MA.). Click the image of Johns studio above or to the left to be taken to the video.
If you have ever studied with John, you have had both the privilege of watching him paint as well benefit from his thorough explanation of his process, keen eye and supportive words. If you haven’t, you should take advantage of the opportunity to accelerate your growth as a painter before he takes a break from teaching in 2018. Now is the time to garner the wealth of information, insight and inspiration he shares. (you can read more about the actual workshop at the Casa here). 

When I tell you John is dedicated to painting and teaching and shares a wealth of information, I am very serious. His newsletters are filled with advice on painting and he literally gives each student that comes to the Casa workshop a booklet filled with his teaching. I would like to share with you here just a snippet from one of these. 


Stream Golds

John MacDonald, “Stream Golds”, oil

Painting Water • Part I: Rivers and Streams

Water comes in an endless variety of forms: lakes, ponds, placid steams, muddy rivers, mountain cascades, and the ever-changing ocean. Throw in a variety of weather conditions, differences in water quality, and the changing light, and the complexity found in the appearance of water can quickly become overwhelming. Because of the breadth of the topic and the limitations on my time, I’m going to address it over the next several newsletters. In this issue, we’ll look at some basic rules of painting all types of water and then dive deeply (sorry, couldn’t resist) into the specifics of streams and rivers, their appearance, forms, and how we can begin to translate their complexity into paint.

Rule #1: Don’t paint water, paint shapes. The only way to be able to see and skillfully paint the complex madness of water is to see it as a group of interlocking shapes, each with a specific value, color, and edge. Shapes! Shapes! Shapes! You are NOT painting water but SHAPES. If you can acquire this skill–to see a stream as simply a variety of 2-dimensional shapes and then carefully translate those into paint on your canvas– lo and behold, you’ll step back and discover that you’ve created a 3-dimensional illusion of water. It’s magic and it begins with seeing and then painting shapes. (By the way, this rule applies not only to painting water but for painting anything: cityscapes, a still-life, the figure, etc. It’s a must-have skill!)

Rule #2: You can’t paint what you can’t see. In theory,… –  if you can see and paint shapes then you can stop here and ignore the rest of this newsletter. It’s not absolutely necessary to know what you’re looking at when trying to paint water–it’s all just shapes. Well, that’s the theory. In practice, because we can’t paint shapes that we can’t see, it’s helpful to know what to look for. Let’s break down the shapes. . .

The visual anatomy of steams and rivers

A stream or river typically has three essential visual components:
1. Bottom / Deep Water
2. Reflections (sky and objects)
3. Surface items (Objects, ripples, or rapids)

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1. The bottom into deep water.

If the water in a stream or river is shallow and clear, the bottom is nearly always visible, especially near the edges of the banks. As the water deepens, the bottom and its details will fade from view. The color will shift towards the blue in clear water or a deeper brown ochre in muddy water. The value will also shift, usually becoming slightly darker. As the water deepens and the bottom disappears we begin to see the reflections in the water.

Direction of Light

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In the photo above, with the sun behind us and with less value contrast between sky, ground, and water, the transition from bottom/deep water to reflections is gradual. The details visible on the bottom of the stream slowly fade into the deeper color of the water which then gives way to the reflec- tions. Notice that the entire stream is in a narrow value range (squint at the photo) with color shifts becoming more important than shifts in value. The entire stream is almost middle value.

In the photo below we look into the sun with a light sky and very dark, silhouetted trees. Notice how the bottom is only visible in the dark reflections of the trees. The reflected sky is so light that it washes out any view of the bottom. Within the dark reflections, the bottom details fade and darken as they move back into the darkest areas of the reflections (#3).

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Bottom details

Because the eye exaggerates contrasts, we often paint the details visible in the stream bottom with too much value and color contrast and with edges too hard. Details should subtle. Keep the values and colors close and the edges soft!

Deep Water

In those cases where the bank drops off so steeply that no bottom is visible, only the color of the deep water is visible, usually a dark brown or blue depending on water quality. This can be the darkest area in the stream. As the eye moves away from the bank the reflections become more evident.
©JOHNMACDONALD 2016  To download the full article, (there is a bit more) and others, as well as sign up for Johns newsletter visit his website: