Aquatic arsenal—painting water plants

The devil is in the details.

This observation has variously been attributed to Mies Vander Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gustav Flaubert. I would surmise any creative person sooner or later discovers that attention to the small details does indeed contribute to the effectiveness of an overall project. Or, as my Granny used to say, look after the pennies and the dollars look after themselves.

Following is my first full shrimp composition in which I tried to use aquatic plants to add ambiance.  I haven’t put a chop on it because I didn’t see it as ‘show-ready’; I found the laciness of the common water plant too similar to the spidery lines in all the legs, whiskers and antennae.  While looking for a water plant with more contrast in shape and texture, I realized I knew little about the subject.


In Chinese brush painting, particularly landscapes and aquatic scenes, the choice and treatment of contextual elements contribute significantly to the success of the composition. In Johnson Su Sing-Chow’s excellent instruction book Aquatic Life he offers a list of commonly used aquatic plants that fill that role for most fish, shrimp, crab, and waterfowl compositions. Thankfully he used some scientific names in his introduction: vallisneria, ludwigia, hygrophia, giant sagitaria, cabomba. And then he added others using common names I recognized: rush, horsetail, horsewhip.

Of course there’s also lotus and water lily for a brush painter to learn, but they have each amassed a considerable ‘body of knowledge’ and are best studied on their own. I have previously blogged about painting lotus here and probably will tackle water lily at some future date.

Three workhorse aquatic plants

Knowing there are a huge variety of water plants, and that distinctions among varieties may be minor, I first needed a general understanding of their classifications and growth habits. This site offered three general groupings: submersed (those that grow entirely or almost entirely underwater), emersed  (those that grow out of the water but are rooted to the bottom), and floating (those that may or may not be anchored to the sediment but have leaves floating on the water surface).

For the three workhorse subjects that show up most often—coontail, duckweed and eelgrass—I checked for scientific names and photographs before moving ahead. As best I can determine these plants are: Ceratophyllum demersum (coontail), Lemna minor (duckweed), and Vallisneria gigantea (eelgrass).

Coontail and eelgrass are examples of submersed plants, whereas duckweed is a common floater. Lotus and arrowhead clearly belong to the third category of emersed plants; they are rooted in the sediment but lift their flowers and leaves above the water.

Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) Study

My study started with this plant, commonly named for its resemblance to a bushy, striped raccoon tail. For a quick fix on its habits and a photograph look here.

More such descriptions abound; here’s one:

It is a free-floating, rootless, perennial native aquatic plant that is capable of forming dense colonies covering large areas of water. The green, forked, serrated leaves are relatively stiff and are arranged in whorls on the stem. These leaves have a strong resemblance to a raccoon’s tail, which is probably how coontail got its name. The plant is found in ponds, lakes and streams across the United States, Mexico, Canada and much of the world. It reproduces through very small seeds and fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when a portion of the plant breaks off and becomes a new plant. Coontail and other aquatic plants spread to new areas when impoundments containing the plants overflow into other water bodies or when seeds or fragments are introduced by birds, boats, livestock, etc.”

I first admired what I thought was coontail in a painting of one of my art friends, Ev Downs. She had layered several plants in different values and thus created considerable depth to her painting. Nenagh gave us a quick demo at the end of a shrimp lesson, but my head was so full of shrimp facts that I didn’t take note of her precise method. Aquatic plants tend to be deceptively complex, and I regret not paying closer attention.

When I first considered what brushwork was required to achieve coontail’s whorl-based appearance and stem branching, I noticed that in some paintings the fronds were painted toward the stem whorl, leaving a slight knobby end to each frond. On others those strokes were executed away from the whorls, ending with pointy tips. Then I noticed that in some paintings the plants were denser and more heavily branched than in others.

With a little more research I concluded perhaps artists were not always painting coontail, but maybe had another similar plant in mind, with the Latin name cabomba.

And my research led me to a site that mentions this common confusion of coontail with cabomba, as well as a third plant. Yikes!

Cabomba tends to branch more and show a denser growth habit, whereas coontail has sparser growth along spiny stems. And then again, maybe some artists were simply exercising their license to paint whatever they pleased–knobby  ends or pointy ends, densely leafed or not, feathery stalks or stiffer spine-like ones–with no care to reality. The final look was the important thing.

Here’s a small study of coontail I made to show the method. Simply load a small detail brush with light green and gently mark in a willowy stem; at intervals construct a series of curved lines towards a common centre on the stem. Paint away from the whorl for pointy ends.  If you want knobby ends use nailhead strokes painting toward the centre.  Be consistent for the whole plant, and don’t mix plants in one composition.


This is meant to be a coontail plant

AquaPlant 4

Here I tried to achieve darker stems in the near distance, with lighter ones further away; once the ink was dry I re-wet the paper and added green washes to enhance the sense of depth.

Duckweed (Lemna minor) Study

In earlier examinations of some CBP aquatic scenes I noticed what appeared to be masses of small lily pads. Then when I hunted for photos and descriptions of duckweed I realized it comes in many sizes, not just the tiny little bright green dots I’ve seen in ponds or aquariums. Again, I concluded that CBP artists might not always be realistic with the size or scale of either duckweed dotting, or lily pads. Maybe I was wrong and those small oval green dabs in some aquatic compositions were really meant to be lily pads, but the artist had no idea that relative to the ducks or other main elements the pads should have been larger to be realistic, or if duckweed was intended, maybe the relative size would have been minimally different from just green algae bloom.

Look at this site for descriptive detail and a photograph showing human fingers covered in duckweed, intended to provide a sense of scale.

“Common duckweed is a very small light green free-floating, seed bearing plant. Duckweed has 1 to 3 leaves, or fronds, of 1/16 to 1/8 inch in length. A single root (or root-hair) protrudes from each frond. Duckweeds tend to grow in dense colonies in quiet water, undisturbed by wave action. Often more than one species of duckweed will be associated together in these colonies. Duckweeds can be aggressive invaders of ponds and are often found mixed in with mosquito fern or watermeal. If colonies cover the surface of the water, then oxygen depletions and fish kills can occur. These plants should be controlled before they cover the entire surface of the pond.”

Painting duckweed is easy, and lots of fun! You simply load a suitable brush—small for small dots, larger for larger dots—with bright green (or mix dots of different greens)—and plant dots in masses, all in the same horizontal manner to convey their presence in water. Depicting the smallest variety of duckweed can be challenging as it has a very small leaf, but a mass of such dotting with ducks or other waterfowl does indeed convey ‘duckweed’ to most artists concerned with some measure of reality.

Here’s a small study I painted on Dragon Cloud paper to show the effect:


Eelgrass Study

The third common aquatic plant used in CBP is a ribbon-like plant growing from a crown in the sediment with long undulating leaves of varying widths. I wondered if it couldn’t be confused with sea kelp. That conundrum was soon forgotten when I found the common term eelgrass could be either of two possibilities–Vallisneria or Zostera marina.

For the latter I found a photo and description here.

For the Vallisneria I found a sketch and description here as well as another more detailed description here.

As far as I could discern, the differences in these plants had to do with habitat and the nature of their roots (white rhizomes vs. a rosette crown), neither of which mattered a whole lot to someone painting sinewy water plants to showcase some prized tropical fish or a shoal of shrimp.

My eelgrass study:

AquaPlant 2

The wispy eelgrass helps suggest water depth and movement around two tropical fish.

AquaPlant 1

Here’s another way to suggest eelgrass–or is it kelp?–in an aquatic composition.


So there you have it:  I too was falling into the camp of those artists who wanted to drop in a few context elements to suggest the environment for my subject, and I made choices based on shapes—feathery or wispy—and contrast—finely detailed like the coontail/cabomba, or solidly rendered like eelgrass/kelp.

I tried to sort out the true identities of the commonly used water plants in order to better understand their characters and habitats.  Their very nature as ‘common’ and the fact several may have the same common name, confounds the issue. I did find others less commonly used that I could incorporate into my arsenal, and those I can be sure of naming correctly.  But then maybe it’s not that important; aquatic plants are usually mere underwater or floating context, not the Big Idea in a painting.

There’s also another option: don’t rely on water plants.

In his introduction to Aquatic Life Su Sing-Chow pointed out that the master painter Qi Baishi was particularly skilled at suggesting the  water in his aquatic compositions without the use of water plants. So yes, I’m heading back to my library to dig out all the Qi Baishi aquatic scene examples I can find. Will keep you posted!




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