Painting reflections

In this article we will be looking at the subject of painting reflections. I will explain why they are important, and how to paint them. There are twenty-five tips in total in this comprehensive guide.

With a little bit of knowledge and practice, reflections become easy to paint, and will greatly help your compositions.

25 Tips for painting reflections in watercolor and other mediums.

This article is based on my YouTube video which covers painting reflections in detail.

So, what are reflections?

In simple terms, reflections are when images bounce off an object and are perceived by the viewer.

Examples of these objects can be anything from a shiny mirror, to water, and even the ground. This may not be a purely scientific definition, but it is very workable for our purposes as artists.

Reflections and shadows often get confused. The key point to remember is that reflections are always towards the viewer, no matter where the light is coming from. In a painting with reflections on water, this is always represented as towards the bottom of your paper.

Watercolor painting of Caves Beach, NSW, Australia. By Joe Cartwright. The painting covers a number of different reflections.
Watercolor painting of Caves Beach, NSW, Australia. Covers a number of reflection painting techniques.

However, unlike a reflection of your face in a bathroom mirror, where we are looking directly ahead, most of the other reflections we see are of things lower than our eyes.

Now, instead of just seeing what is directly in front of them, they see additional shapes or parts of objects that you can’t see when you look directly ahead. The colors are also different.

An example of this is when we look at a pier on a lake. If we look downwards, at the reflection, in addition to the side of the pier, we will also see a reflection of the underside of the pier.

Another example is when we look at a reflection on a river or stream. We often see a reflection of the sky through the trees, while not being able to see the sky if we look directly at the trees.

This is because the light from the sky beyond the trees shines through the gaps in the foliage and bounces off the water towards our eyes.

If you look around you, I am sure you will find many similar examples of what I have just covered.

Here are some reasons why reflections are important.

Close up reflections of a paddle steamer showing reflections of rippled water.
Reflections makes a subject more interesting
  • Reflections can be full of beautiful colors and shapes you would not see otherwise. For example, a dull scene can be transformed when the rain makes the ground reflective. Lights from windows, colorful clothing, and umbrellas, now become wonderful sources of reflected shapes and light.
  • Like shadows, reflections can also be used to connect shapes. In this way they can help direct a viewer’s eyes around the painting, rather than making them jump from one disconnected object to another.
  • They can convert a somewhat boring shape into a more interesting one. A boat with no reflection looks less interesting than one with a reflection.
  • A reflection can connect the middle distance to the foreground, helping move the viewer’s eyes around your painting.
  • It can tell you whether the water is calm or turbulent, and everything in between.
    • Reflections on smooth water are more mirror like than those on choppy water.
  • Reflections help connect objects, such as boats, piers, etc., to water.
  • Reflections can help convey atmospheric effects. Soft indistinct reflections can enhance the effect of mist, while darker sharper reflections can indicate grey overcast skies.

Now, let us look at how to paint reflections.

The first thing to know is that a reflection is directly below the object being reflected. If you are reflecting the mast of a boat, then the mast reflection must be directly below it.

Unlike a household mirror, reflections on water are changed by the color of the water and what is underneath its surface such as sand, or a road.

Reflections of the sky, cows, and trees, on  brown water in a water hole. The color of the reflections is modified by the cover of the water.
Reflections of the sky, cows, and trees, on brown water in a water hole. The color of the reflections is modified by the cover of the water.

The color of the object being reflected combines with the color of the water.

For this reason, reflections of a light object, such as the white hull of a sailing vessel, will be darker than the object. While, reflections of a very dark object, such as a black or dark blue hull, will be lighter in tone.

If the water is green or some other color, then the reflection will also have some of that color in it too.

The color of the sky modifies the color of the water. This in turn changes the color of the reflection.

Water is not a perfect mirror, so some of the light is absorbed by it, which makes reflections duller than the original color.

Reflections are also modified by atmospheric perspective, just like the objects being reflected. So, a distant boat, in mist will have a weaker reflection than one closer to the viewer.

Sometimes a boat’s shadow will align with its reflection due to the position of the sun. In this case, the reflection can appear darker than normal.

The height of a reflection on a smooth surface is equal to the height of the object being reflected. So, a boat’s reflection will be the same distance below water level compared to the height of the mast measured from the surface of the water.

Watercolor painting of a wet Venetian street demonstrating reflections on a hard surface.
Watercolor painting of a wet Venetian street covering the topic of painting reflections on a hard surface.

However, in some situations the undulations on the water surface can create a reflection that is longer than the height of the object being reflected.

Just like shadows, reflection edges can be quite varied.

On very still water, a reflection can be almost mirror like, with clear images and sharp edges. But its color will still be modified by the water’s color.

When the water begins to undulate, ripples will appear in the reflection. As I mentioned earlier, in certain situations this can make a reflection extend further than the height of the object being reflected. In this case you will usually see gaps in the reflection.

If the water is choppy, especially if the object is in the distance, it can become very hard to see a reflection at all.

On rivers and lakes, wind will often disturb the surface of the water enough to lighten the darkness of a reflection.

In early morning or late afternoon the sun can have a very long reflection because its light skims the surface of the water.

I will now cover how to paint reflections in various situations.

My first example looks at painting reflections of early morning or late afternoon sun on water.

Watercolor of early morning light on water. Lake Jindabyne, NSW, Australia
Painting reflections of early morning light on water. Lake Jindabyne, NSW, Australia

In this case, the reflection of the sun creates a bright broken and dispersed pattern of light on the water surface. This effect is particularly useful for directing the eye and adding light to your painting.

I usually create the pattern of the reflections with quick dry brush strokes before filling in the rest of the water on either side of the sun’s reflection.

The distant parts of the reflection are kept smaller than those in the foreground.

 This next example looks at a simple reflection on calm water.

Painitng showing how to paint reflections of a boat on still water.
Watercolor painitng of a boat on still water.

When painting reflections on calm water additional detail is required as the water acts more like a mirror.

I still add ripples however, as they make the reflection more interesting.

The main thing to get right is the position of the reflection, it must be directly below the object being reflected. You must take note of objects that are at an angle from vertical.

Examples of this are the leading edge of a boat hull, a leaning tree in water, or an angled bollard in the sea. If an object like a hull edge, approaches the water at an angle from the right, then its reflection also leans back to the right from where it touches the hull.

Like all reflections on water the color of the reflection must be modified by the color of the water. Remember very dark colors are lighter and lighter colors are darker.

Reflections on roads can be way more interesting than a plain dry surface.

Bathurst in the rain, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright. Painting shows various reflections on the road.
Bathurst in the rain, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

They can be quite difficult to paint, however, but when done right, they can transform a dull-looking subject into a great one.

These reflections have every different type of edge effect. Some are sharply defined, others have a broken edge, and there will be lots of soft wet on wet shapes.

Once the road surface is wet, reflections can connect objects to the ground, just like shadows do. They also allow more color to be added to your composition. These extra colors can come from window lighting, colorful umbrellas, clothing, or even street and car lights.

The color of the road will also dull and change the color of a reflection.

Before painting these reflections, I often dab some areas of the foreground with water, so that as I paint my reflection, when the paint hits the pre-wet area, it automatically produces a softer wet on wet shape. I use this same technique when painting large shadows in the foreground of my watercolors.

I have an article on this website which covers how I painted the above watercolor painting.

 In this next painting we can look at reflections on sand.

Reflections on sand are like reflections on roads and hard wet surfaces, where the sand is the main modifier of the reflection color.

Also, as the water drains off the sand, the reflection drops off quite quickly as the wet sand becomes barely damp.

While there is more to learn about reflections, hopefully what I have covered will help you take your work to a new level.

Painting complex reflections

Some reflections can be very complex. In these cases, I suggest you just paint what you see, rather than trying to get too technical about just what the light and reflections are doing.

It is often useful to do small test paintings to solve any of these more difficult reflection puzzles before tackling your painting.

Have fun with your painting.