Tips for Painting Water and Reflections

Recently, a Fine Art Tips reader asked me to share some tips for painting water  and the sun reflections at sunset.

Like many, this new painter has been a bit intimidated by depicting  reflected light on water.

Painting water is a fairly complex subject. Water, is affected by its surroundings, reflections, depth and clarity.

The painting of oceans, rivers, lakes and ponds can be beautiful, but managing to get the water and reflections to look like actual water can be challenging.

Careful observation of what you actually see, rather than what you think you see – will help you paint believable water.

Understanding Water

Different Bodies of Water:

Make sure that you consider the differences between rivers, lakes, oceans, and puddles before you start to paint them.  A general understanding will help you recreate them with greater ease.

  • Shallow water generally ripples and moves its course over rocks and debris. This causes a complex pattern of broken reflections. Shallow ocean water is lighter, often turquoise in color.
    • Ripples combine the reflected colors from light and dark areas.
    • Use quick, energetic brushwork with side to side strokes of a thin brush.
    • Drag paint from dark reflected objects quickly into the light areas, clean the brush, then drag the paint from the light areas back into the dark.
    • Watch for the bright highlights from ripples in dark areas and small dark streaks appear in light areas.
  • Deep water generally ebbs and flows more slowly with a smoother surface. This calmer water gently reflects its immediate surroundings and color of the sky. Deep ocean water is generally very deep blackish blue.
    • Use broader brushwork with a larger flat brush
    • Slower strokes and elegant, softer edges

Under the water:

  • Shallow water is generally warmer in tone which is affected by the rocks, sand and algae underneath.
  • Lakes, rivers and streams tend to be greener. This is caused by the sediment in the water which reflects more light.
  • A lake, river or stream generally tends more toward green. Particles floating in the water reflect more light, creating an overall lighter tone.
    • The value of the blue-green decreases and gets darker as the water gets deeper.

The Surface of the Water:

  • Lights are darker when reflected on the water.
    • The sky reflected on the surface of the water is generally a deeper version of the sky above.
    • Reflections of objects will be somewhat darker and dimmer than objects seen directly.
  • Darks are lighter when reflected on the water.
    • On the surface of clear water, shadow areas from objects next to the water tend to offer a window to under the surface – like wearing polarized sunglasses!
    • This is due to the object blocking the reflection of the sky.

(In this photograph, notice how the highlights are darker and the shadows are lighter in the reflection. Also, notice how the distant water reflects more light from the sky and darkens as it nears.)

Water Becomes Less Reflective the Closer the Viewer Is:

  • Water is an imperfect reflector. The closer the water is to the viewer, the less it reflects an image of the earth and sky.
    • For example, calm water directly below the viewer reflects only weak images while the outlying water reflects almost as well as a mirror.
    • In murky water close to you, the overall color of the water itself is seen.
    • In clear water, the rocks and objects under the water are seen.
  • Water in the foreground is usually darker than more distant water.

One trick: Gradate the reflected images in the background from light, cool and clear to the foreground to darker and more olive green. Keep in mind, the reflected sky in water close to you tends to look darker, grayer and more blue-violet than in far-away water.

Understanding the Shapes & Angles Reflected in the Water:

Many new painters paint the reflected image as an exact, mirrored image of direct object. This distorts and the realistic landscape painting requires a more accurate representation of what your eyes actually see.

  • When viewing a scene of reflections in water, you are seeing the actual objects in the scene and their reflected images from two different viewing angles.
  • Of course, the reflected image you see in the water bounces off the surface of the water.
  • However, you see the reflected scene from an angle of view as far below the surface of the water as your eyes are above the water.
  • This means you see more of the undersides of reflected objects and may even see reflected objects that you cannot see at all when you look directly at the objects.

(I am using the gull photograph to illustrate the ‘angle’ & color differences of a reflection: Notice how the reflection is NOT a mirrored image of the subject. The reflection shows much more of the underside of the bird rather than the side view. Also, notice how the white of the gull is darker in the reflection and the darks are a bit lighter.)

Lastly, many painters have difficulties when they try to paint very bright highlights such as reflections of the sunset on water. Using pure white paint and expecting the painting to look realistic is a common mistake. Observation and practice will help you paint what you see and not what you know.

Try mixing  a bit of yellow into the white for these intense highlights. In fact, if painted accurately, this painted sunlight can appear as bright as the original reflection of the actual sun.

Also, learning how to use complimentary hues and warm against cool colors will dramatically improve the glow of your paintings.

Observing any one of these principles will greatly improve your painting of reflections in water. These tips can be used for oil, acrylic, watercolor and all other painting mediums.

*****

“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” ~Pablo Picasso

I hope this helps!

Lean more about ‘color’ and “value and tone’ because this will help your paintings become more believable:

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color in Your Art

A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Your Paintings

Water Soluble Oil Paints: Facts, Tips & Why I Use Them

Meet me on Twitter & Facebook!

For more information about painting water reflections check out these great sources:

Painting Reflections in Water

How to Paint Water for Oil, Acrylic & Watercolor Paintings

Painting The Flow, Color & Rhythm of Water

About Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Ambassador Artist to Royal Talens. As the owner of FineArtTips.com, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses.

Comments

  1. Very helpful information! Thanks for sharing, Lori. I have been struggling with this technique and haven’t found too many resources that I could successfully say “I did it”. So I look forward to trying again this approach. What would be even more helpful is a demonstration illustating this technique! I love your blog which is always full of great information.

    • Hi Diana – I agree about the demonstration suggestion. A reader asked me for advice the night before I posted the article. Instead of answering his questions in an email, I ended up writing this post! Down the road I will try and do a demo, meanwhile I hope these tips get you started.
      Best-
      Lori

  2. Really good post, i read it all. It is good informative knowledge :)

  3. The information you provide is wonderful. Thank you for the fine tips. I also love your quote from Picasso…awesome thought
    Thanks again
    Clair

  4. Genial post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you on your information.

  5. Great information. Thanks so much for sharing. To be able to verbally reflect on (no pun) these concepts really shows your understanding and study of nature. What a great thing to find on the web. You really help a lot of folks with this material.

    Don

    • Hello Don, nice to meet you here. I really appreciate your great comment. I am glad you found these tips while surfing the web and I hope you come back again.

      Happy painting-
      Lori

  6. I have come across your site as an experienced woodcarver who is carving a commissioend panel with water in it. I have been carving for 20 years but am completely clueless on how to carve water but your site has made me reflect. Thanks.

    • Hello Bob,

      It gives me great pleasure to know that my little tips are crossing into other creative avenues and helping other creative people such as yourself. Carving water must be a challenge! I hope it all goes well.

      Best-
      Lori

  7. Thanks for this very helpful info, Lori. You have cleared up some things that I have been wondering about concerning painting water. I appreciate how much help you are to your fellow artists.
    God bless,
    Jacki

    • I am so grateful to hear this post has helped you Jacki! Water can be tricky. Thank you for the nice message. I really appreciate it and am happy to help others. I hope to see you again soon.

      Happy painting-
      Lori :)

  8. Awata Gulay says:

    Dear Lori,

    I liked your information about drawing water. I was only painting the shore by mixing the colors of the sea & the sun but, i didn’t know that the depth & the reflections would change it totally into a wonderful painting. I liked the quote by the way :)

    thank you,
    A.G.

    • Hello Awata,

      I am so glad you learned a thing or two from this article. Thanks for letting me know. Hope to see you here again someday soon.

      Best-
      Lori

  9. virginia nickle says:

    I want to thank you on this information concerning the reflections thanks.

  10. Tessa Sheremeta says:

    Hi Lori! I am painting a water scene (watercolour paint) with buildings in the evening, and I want to paint lights in the buildings so they can reflect on the water. How do I paint the reflected light on the water realistically?

    • Hello Tessa,

      I hope this article is helpful to you, but it sounds like you still have some questions. Although it is difficult for me to answer your question without seeing the painting, I will try.
      Remember, the object that is being reflected in the water is not an exact mirrored image. Plus, the darks of the objects will reflect a bit lighter, just as the lights will reflect a bit darker! Try turning the painting upside down and make sure you are using good reference photos.

      Thank you for the comment and good luck!
      Lori :)

  11. Lori,
    In reference to your “Sunset on water”. I have a similar problem on my oil painting that
    I hope you could help me with. Mine consist of water protruding from a dark forest coming to the foreground. The sun is not visible in the painting but the some rays break thru the trees. My problem is there are three spots where the light is super intense and the rest of the light rays are not that bright and after I was finished all of the non intense light is to bright. How do I get it to not look so bright in those areas?
    Thanks,
    Matt

  12. Love your blog!! Love your work!!!

  13. Thank you Lori,
    I’m tired of trying to teach myself acrylics…too often things go right or wrong without me having a complete understanding of it. Reflections are too complex for me to figure out. Your answers seem far superior to anything I have searched.
    I will certainly be back!
    Heather

  14. Some good rules to go by here. Of course, as an artist who renders with an impressionist brush, I love to break them once in a while to keep things lively!
    ronaldleeoliver.com

  15. Lori, I just found your blog from the Acrylic Painting Club on FB and can’t believe what a fantastic tutorial you have shared with us. I have been painting professionally for 11 years and I still get tripped up with water, coming close but missing something. I have saved this link and it is coming with me on my next plein air day! Thank you again!
    Christine
    hannonartworks.blogspot.com

    • Christine, I am so glad to know that this post is coming in handy for you. Those ‘rules’ should help you when in the field painting water. Let me know how it goes…

  16. I ‘m painting a bayou with dark water and reflections. How can i make the water glassy and what color should the ripples be? I ‘m working with acrylics.

    • Hello Dale, this is not an easy question because the water colors, and ripples are depended upon the surrounding environment. Is the sky cloudy, blue or is there a sunset? This would change the water reflections and ripples. I am sure the bayou is murky and dark, but again the sky will change the color of the water. I hope this helps…

  17. Alexandra D'Anchala says:

    Very useful and well explained, thank you very much for sharing it with us. Regards from Spain.

  18. Great post!

  19. Hi Lori,

    I was wondering if the sunset tips can be used if it were a moonlight instead of a sun? Wouldn’t the highlight be white?

    Thank you for the information though!

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