Eric Ravilious and the Duck’s Bottom Effect

The English artist, Eric Ravilious (1903 -1942), is loved of many of us who tramp the same chalky hills of the South Downs that he worked amongst.

One of his pictures, Newt Pond, brings a familiar sense of rural life. But it does more, it offers us an excellent example of the ‘Duck’s Bottom’ effect.

In talks, I often come back to the theme that one of the lines that divides great landscape artists from mediocre ones is the way that the greats really see what is before them. And this is harder than it might seem.

The Newt Pond can illustrate this challenge for us.

Look closely at the picture. Notice how we can see a mixture of trees, grass and buildings on the far side of the pond.

Now look at the reflection of these images in the pond’s surface.

Do we see the same thing?

Do we see the same thing, only inverted?

Do we see the same thing, only inverted and with faded colours, the hues washed away?

No.

In the water’s surface we see something different. Ravilious saw this and recorded it faithfully.

Yes, in the reflections the scene is inverted and the colours are leached (bright colours are dulled and dark hues lightened in water reflections). But something else has also changed.

In the water we are offered a different perspective of the scene on the far side of the pond.

Over to you – see if you can spot the ghost barn roof.

Answer:

Have a look at the far side of the pond. Can you spot the barn roof in the reflections. But when you look for it beyond the trees, it is not there, it is hidden by the branches.

I call this the ‘duck’s bottom’ effect. When we look down at a duck that waddles past us, we can’t see its bottom. But if the same duck passes through a puddle, suddenly we see its bottom in the reflection. The water allows us to see things that are invisible with a direct perspective.

Artists so often are tempted into believing that the reflections we see in water are a simple 180 degree inversion of the scene on the far side. But if we take the time to really look, we see a more interesting truth.

The Duck’s Bottom effect allows water-readers to see through trees in the way Eric Ravilious did.

Tags