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As often happens when painting, one gets really good at painting the subject of an obsession. During a recent watercolor workshop with Ann Lindsay at Omega Institute, I learned that Ann went through an obsessive relationship with marshes. She’s better now. But in the process, she got darn good at painting marshland.

But first, in keeping with my shout-out to 70s TV: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (also see Bob Ross in Happy Little Clouds)

Now that that’s out of the way, Marshes was the subject for one day of our 5-day workshop. Painting a marsh gets you practicing several things:

  1. Shape (the stream as it winds its way through a marsh)
  2. Color (sky, water, marshland)
  3. Value (darker in the foreground, lighter in the background)

It also helps you think intentionally about the horizon line, which one always needs to keep in mind when painting a landscape.

After demonstrating what a marsh looks like, Ann had us do up some marsh sketches.

Marsh Sketches

What’s important to note about painting the stream within a marsh is that it varies in its width at each turn. The flatter the perspective, the more pronounced will be this variation. The other extreme would be if you were looking down on the stream from the air — there would be very little variation in width. As I sketched (and subsequently painted) marshes, I had to keep this truth in mind to prevent myself from drawing a 3rd grade stream, which looks like this:

Child River

Ann showed us how to create a distant treeline on the horizon that looks hazy and, well, distant. First I painted a wash of the sky (bringing the wash all the way to the bottom of the paper means that your stream will end up looking like it reflects the sky).

I let that wash dry, and then I added water from the horizon line up (it’s very important to make sure the wash is bone dry or all hell will break loose with your sky wash). Then I dropped in tree color right at the horizon line, letting the water carry it up (no need to tilt the paper).

This picture shows the sky wash (bone dry) with clear water painted over it from the horizon up. The green tree line has just been added, and you can see the water doing its work of growing the trees up into the sky.

Marshes - Wet in Wet

Below is the finished painting. Lesson learned: if you want a smaller (more distant) tree line, use less paint. I was so memorized by the process that I couldn’t stop adding paint. This tree line ended up being bigger than I intended, which had the effect of moving the horizon forward.

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I continued to play with marshes, experimenting with different horizon lines, skies, marsh colors, and stream configurations.

Happy, sunny marsh. For the clouds, I used the paint around method, adding violet and a mix of Ultramarine and Burn Umber for the shadows. I didn’t carry the blue sky down to the bottom of the paper in the initial wash, so the streams don’t reflect the sky (that is, they’re white, not blue).

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Foreboding marsh. I tried a different sky here, dropping in the Ultramarine and Burnt Umber mix wet-on-wet to the blue wash. To complement the darker sky, I used some of the same colors in the marshland. The treeline on the horizon was done wet-on-dry, so it leaves a hard rather than a soft edge. Note the shape of the stream in this painting. At points (in the distance), the stream virtually disappears behind the land.

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Double-stream marsh. Ah yes, the ol’ double-stream marsh. In this painting, I carried the pink of the horizon sky down to the bottom of the paper, creating a pink sky reflection in the stream. The treeline is a mix of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques, which leaves you with both soft and hard edges.

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I found these marsh studies to be very meditative. Once I learned the techniques, with each new study I let my right brain decide what it wanted to do. Keeping the studies small (each painting is about 5×7 or smaller) kept me moving forward and not getting hung up on one particular painting.

Which marsh appeals to you most?