Welcome to Q&A December! We begin the month with a question I’ve been asked more than once: how to draw a wave. Here is Gail’s question:
How do you do a line drawing of waves and then how do you draw the mist and foam from the water?
Overall… water is what bugs me. I never know how much to put into a line drawing when it comes to ripples and highlights, or foam or spray.
Thank you for the question, Gail.
I know beyond all shadow of doubt that you’re not alone in wanting to know how to draw waves and water in other forms. In fact, questions about drawing water are among the questions most often asked most artists.
How to Draw a Wave
Since Gail’s question specifically deals with making a line drawing, I’ll show how I make a line drawing of a wave. I’ll also say up front that this is how I make a freehand line drawing of anything I might want to draw, but especially landscape subjects.
Before you start drawing.
Take a few minutes to look at your subject. I don’t mean a quick glance, either. Look for the big shapes. The colors and details are no doubt what first drew your attention, but ignore those for now. Instead ask yourself the following questions.
What shape best describes this wave? Is it triangular or more oval?
Which of the shapes is the largest, and how much larger is it than the shapes around it?
How do the shapes relate to one another in location?
If you have difficulty seeing the shapes, turn your reference photo upside down or flip it side to side. That gives you a different look at the image. Turning it upside down is especially effective in tricking your brain into seeing abstract shapes instead of a wave (or whatever else you’re drawing.)
And if you can’t get past those beautiful colors, make the reference photo gray scale!
Step 1: Mark the Borders of the Drawing
I’ve found over the years that the best way to get a more accurate line drawing is to first take a minute or two to define the picture plain (the drawing area.) You don’t need fancy tools to do this.
Two Ways to Mark Borders
A precut mat of the right size is an ideal tool for marking borders.
This is one of my precut mats. I have various sizes so I marked each one with the size of the opening so I could tell at a glance what size I’m looking at. Beats measuring them every time!
I lay the mat over the drawing paper and lightly draw along the inside edges. The result looks like this. Not very fancy, I admit, but this is just a line drawing after all!
If you prefer to draw directly on your drawing paper—which I do for landscapes—measure the picture plane on your drawing paper, then draw the borders more carefully. Or tape the paper to a back board so the tape marks the border, then proceed with the next steps.
Step 2: Rough in the Basic Shape
Start with the biggest shapes. Use light pressure to outline them. I’ve drawn this wave a little darker than I usually would so you could see it. I have such a naturally light hand, that my scanner cannot see my first marks!
Pay close attention to the relationships between the big shapes. Draw them as close to the reference photo as you can, but let’s be honest. No one is going to know if your shapes are not 100% accurate.
Vary the type of strokes to draw different parts of the wave.
Use different types of strokes to draw different parts of the wave, so you can tell the difference between rolling water, foam, and mist. Since mist rarely has clear edges, use dotted lines or simple dots to mark out where it will be in the drawing. You might even want to do this first, since mist will hide or obscure whatever is behind it.
This detail shows the types of marks I used to sketch this wave. The wave itself is a series of short, straight or slightly curving marks. The foam is sketched with wiggly or curving strokes that are also short.
The mist is barely suggested with a series of dots.
If it helps, draw these shapes with short lines as this detail shows. For some of us, it’s easier to draw short, straight lines rather than working out longer lines. Especially with very difficult subjects like this one.
Step 3: Add Smaller Details
When you’re satisfied you have the large, basic shapes correct (or as correct as you want them to be,) begin adding smaller details. Continue looking for shapes, but now look for the smaller shapes within the large shapes.
Also begin refining all the shapes. If you used short straight lines for the big shapes, start smoothing them out and making them look more like the curved shapes of the wave.
Continue using light pressure so you can draw over these lines if needed. Drawing with light pressure also means you can erase mistakes more completely.
This is also a good time to start creating the illusion of space or distance to your drawing by making the foreground shapes a little darker and more detailed than the background shapes.
I added a line in the left background to suggest another wave coming in and made the similar line on the right a little crisper.
Step 4: Refine Shapes and Continue Adding Details
Refine all of the shapes and continue adding details until you have as complete a drawing of the wave as you want. That will differ from artist to artist. Some prefer to keep the line drawing loose and to fill in the details at the rendering stage. Others want completely detailed line drawings before starting with color. The choice is yours.
However you draw a wave, it’s important to aim for capturing the character or personality of the wave rather than making an exact drawing.
One Note About Mist
When you start doing color work on your wave, it’s very important to mark out the mist first. Mist can be pretty opaque or fairly translucent, so you may be able to see some things through it. The best way I’ve found to draw believable mist is to work around it with the first few layers. Then lightly layer color over it and then lift color with mounting putty.
In Answer to Gail’s Question About How Much Detail to Include in a Line Drawing When You Draw a Wave
I have two answers to this part of Gail’s question.
Personal Preference and Line Drawing Detail
The first answer is that this is a personal preference matter. Some artists draw every visible detail, and with good reason. It’s so difficult to preserve some of those details if they’re not in the line drawing. It’s also very difficult to add them later if you accidentally cover them!
Some artists find highly detailed line drawings an absolute must. Other artists find them confusing and unhelpful. This won’t help you at all, but I have had occasion to experience both!
Style of Drawing and Line Drawing Detail
The second answer is that the level of detail you draw depends on your style of drawing. If you want to render highly detailed artwork, then it’s probably going to help you to draw as much detail as possible from the start.
But if you prefer a more painterly and less detailed end result, then you don’t need to draw quite as much detail in the line drawing.
Subject and Line Drawing Detail
I tend to draw detail based on my subject. For animals, and especially for portraits, my line drawings are much more detailed.
Landscapes, on the other hand, are usually just quick sketches and are drawn directly on the drawing paper!
That’s One Way to Draw a Wave
It’s not the only way, by any means, but when it comes to freehand drawing most types of landscapes, this is my go-to method.
When you’ve finished your drawing, it’s a good idea to set it aside for at least a day. Letting a fresh drawing sit overnight allows you to review it with a fresh eye the next day. That’s the perfect time for spotting errors in the drawing or finding things you might want to change.
And when it comes to colored pencil work, finding and fixing those mistakes before you start work with a colored pencil is far better than trying to fix the mistake after a few layers of color.