How to paint water

How to paint water with watercolor paints?

While this article on how to paint water relates to how to paint with watercolors specifically most of the information also applies to all other artist’s mediums.

Whole books have been written on this subject so I shall only cover the key points here.

Watercolors are perfect for painting water due to their transparency and natural interaction with water itself. A number of watercolor painting techniques can help you create more realistic water effects. These watercolor techniques include wet on wet, wet on dry and dry brush strokes. These painting techniques apply whether you are creating landscape paintings with rivers and lakes or seascapes of the ocean.

Some of the key things to consider with your watercolor painting of water are:


You have to get the reflections right as they convey one of the key elements of water that make it what it is; it reflects light.  Not only does it reflect light from the sun and sky but also anything on water is reflected by it. These reflections are always towards the viewer, which means downwards in your painting. See photo in fig 1 for an example.

Boat and Building Reflections Cornwall
Figure 1: Reflections are towards the viewer i.e. downwards on your paper

When painting an ocean scene with object floating on it such as boats. Make reflections of objects closer to the foreground larger and with more detail than reflections in the distance. In fact once boats are a long way away it is virtually impossible to see their reflection. See fig 2.

On the sea the further an object is from you the less you can see of its reflection
Figure 2: On the sea the further an object is from you the less you can see of its reflection

Another important area of reflection is wet sand, where there is a shallow veneer of water just covering the sand. This acts as a very nice mirror, especially when see from a distance so you should treat it as such.

Reflections on wet sand Tallow Beach - Byron Bay
Figure 3: Reflections on wet sand

One last point to do with reflections, which I have covered in another article on this site, is the fact that unlike a real mirror, which reflects images and light very accurately, reflections from water are altered in part by the color of the water itself. If the water has a slight tinge such as green or brown then this will add to the colors being reflected either darkening them if they are light colors (e.g. a white boat) or lightening them (e.g. a black boat or black rocks).


Water is transparent; you can see through it and hence see objects in it. So what does this mean for your watercolour painting? Well when painting a beach scene, it means allowing some of the sand to show as the water gets closer to shore. This is done by lightening and warming up the mix of water and watercolor paint you use for painting the water. You do this by adding more water to the watercolor paint mixture to lighten it and adding a warmer color such as cobalt turquoise to warm it up.

How to paint water. Water looks lighter and warmer (less blue) as it approaches the shore. Dry brush created broken edges give impression of fluidity.
Figure 4: Water looks lighter and warmer (less blue) as it approaches the shore. Dry brush created broken edges give impression of fluidity.

If you are painting a river scene, the same applies at the edge of the water, where it merges with the bank. The colors you use will different however.


Water flows and you need to try and capture this.

If you are painting a scene with boats in the foreground, make sure you use lots of soft edges in the body of the reflection. This is very easy with watercolor by dropping in reflected details while the body of the reflection shape is still wet. See figure 5 for an example.

Wet on wet internal reflections
Figure 5: Wet on wet internal reflections

This is your typical wet on wet technique, the under wash of the water is painted first and let to dry thoroughly. Then the initial wash of the reflection is done wet on dry but the additional internal reflections are dropped in wet on wet which give the overall impression of fluidity.

Now when doing a beach scene it is the quick dry brush strokes of the water color over the white watercolor paper (this works best with Rough or Cold Press textured paper) that give the impression of foam on the water and hence the feeling of movement and fluidity. This can be seen in Figure: 4 above.

You can see a number of examples of reflections if you have a look at the seascapes and rivers scenes in my online art gallery. There are many other online art galleries of other watercolor artists’ work you can view which have similar examples of painting water you can study to help you learn to paint water better.

Hopefully the information on how to paint water will help you create some beautiful paintings in the future.

Painting the sea, people and birds with watercolor

Painting the sea

Now the sand is done we will now look at painting the sea.

Using the same mix of watercolor paints but make sure the consistency is stronger than that used for the sky; we use a dry brush technique to paint the water.

I use the point of my brush to establish the horizon line and then use the side of the brush with quick horizontal dry brush strokes to create the sea and waves.

I add a little clean water to the mix in my brush for the foreground water and waves.

The trick is to leave just enough untouched white patches in the sea area that they look like the white of waves. If you have too many, the sea looks very choppy, not enough white and it looks too calm or maybe like a lake.

Painting the sea with watercolor
Figure 8: Painting the sea with watercolor

This watercolor painting is nearly finished now, once we paint the figures.

Painting small figures

To paint these people, figure 9, start by using an almost buttery mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (learning towards the brown) to paint the head, arms, and legs. Notice the legs are drawn with dry brush strokes that are of different lengths, this is done to give them the feeling of motion.

If both legs are touching the sand with sharp edges, the figures will look stationary.

Then use the same mixture with some more blue added for the shorts.

For their shirts I use a weak tea strength mixture of these two colors and shade in the sides of their clothing away from the sun, some parts of the shirt are left untouched.  Notice that the shadows on the shirt are irregular to give the feeling of motion and surface variety.

Painting figures with watercolor paint walking along a sandy beach
Figure 9: Painting figures with watercolor paint

By using a quick semi dry brush stroke we can give the impression of sea weed on the sand. By giving it a bit of a curve we can more gracefully lead the eye into our painting, it also adds more interest to the sand.

The foreground rocks are painted with almost pure paint with just enough water for it to flow off the brush. Again remember to leave highlights. Also make sure the rocks vary in size or they will look unnatural and boring.

Before the rocks dry, get a damp brush and soften their edges here and there at their bases. This will help anchor them to the sand and not make them look like they were stuck on as an afterthought.

Watercolor painting of foreground rocks and sea weed
Figure 10: Watercolor painting of foreground rocks and sea weed

Now put in the birds in the sky. The key to this is to use birds as a device to direct the eye of the viewer where you would like it to go. Don’t just put them any old where. Also vary the space between the birds, their size and the angle of their wings.

Birds in the sky can also be used to add interest if the sky is looking a bit too plain and open.

The birds on the wet sand are painted by first putting a little flick of paint to represent a bird. Then under each bird, leave a little gap (for their legs which are too thin to show) and then place a little dab of the same colored paint underneath. You then get your finger and touch this dab and drag in down the page to create a little dry brush (with your finger) stroke under each bird – this should read like the birds reflection.

If you put these birds on the part of your painting which is supposed to be dry sand then they will not have a reflection, but will instead have a shadow that is away from the light source (usually the sun). Remember when painting reflections and shadows – reflections are towards the viewer or the bottom of the painting while shadows are away for the source of light in your landscape (usually the sun).

The shadow for the two figures is the last step in this painting, though it could have been done any time after the figures were painted in. A couple of quick irregular brush strokes starting from the figures legs and away from the direction of the sun with give their shadow and the painting is done!

Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene
Figure 11: Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene

As you can see, even with a relatively simple two color painting as this there are many steps to consider with a watercolor painting. By thinking through any of your paintings in this way, and deciding when to let various sections dry, what painting consistencies to use and what type of edge (wet on wet, dry brush, wet on dry, etc) to use where, you can tackle any watercolor painting with increased confidence.

You can find more simple demonstrations at this link: Simple watercolor painting demonstrations

Should you have any questions about this demonstration or watercolor painting in general please let me know through my Contact page.

How to paint sand and hills with watercolor

Painting the hills with watercolor

In this step, figure 5, paint the distant hills, leaving a few untouched areas at the bottom of the closest hill were rocks will be place in the next step. Paint one wash over both hills and let it dry thoroughly.

Now paint the foreground hill with a similar strength mixture as was used for the distant hill. As watercolor tones are additive it will make the closest hill look darker and hence closer to the viewer. Remember to paint around the figures and the rock shapes at the bottom of the hill.

Watercolor painting of distant hills
Figure 5: Watercolor painting of distant hills

Then with a creamy mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, paint in the rocks, taking care to leave the odd highlight unpainted.

Painting foreground hill and rocks with watercolor
Figure 6: Painting foreground hill and rocks with watercolor

How to paint sand

Let us now look at how to paint sand with watercolor.

After using the same two colors to mix a dull brown to the consistency of creamy milk, take a brush with clean water and wet a section of the painting where some of the sea will merge with the sand.

Then while this area is still quite wet paint the sand.  Remember to paint around the figures clothing.

When using watercolor paint to paint the sand I pick up some of my pre mixed paint, drag the tip of the brush across the lip of my palette to take out some of the paint mix, and then I dip the tip of the brush in clean water. I do this to dilute the mixture a little before starting to paint the distant section of sand. This makes it lighter in tone and helps to create the feeling of space in my painting.

After this start to painting the sand I then just use the mixture in my palette, which is stronger and will make the foreground sand look closer to the viewer.

You can also see, figure 7, that where the sand mixture hits the pre-wet area to the left of the figures, that a soft and lighter patch is created. Hopefully this will make that area read like wet sand later in the process of painting this watercolor.

How to paint sand with watercolor. Painting sand on beach with watercolor
Figure 7: How to paint sand on beach with watercolor

Continue to: Painting people the sea and birds with watercolor

Painting the sky and clouds with watercolor

Painting the sky and clouds

After doing the drawing our first watercolor painting step is painting the sky and clouds. Create a very weak mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, about the strength of a weak cup of tea.

Then using the side of a round brush loaded with only clean water, wet the area of the sky which will be cloud free i.e. only wet the area which would normally be blue sky. Leave some large areas untouched – this is where the clouds will appear.

By using the side of the brush and only lightly touching the paper you will create wet areas with rough edges. In Figure 2, I have added a tiny amount of watercolor paint in my wash so you can see where the clear water would normally be applied.

First step for painting the sky and clouds with watercolor is to apply clean water with the side of the round brush where the sky will be.
Figure 2: First step for painting the sky and clouds with watercolor is to apply clean water with the side of the round brush where the sky will be.

Now while the sky area is still quite wet go back in with the sky mixture already produced. Hold the brush as you did when you initially wet the sky. As you see interesting cloud edges formed – leave them!  That is what you are after. Importantly don’t fiddle, just put the sky in and leave it. Don’t mix the sky colors after you wet the sky as it will dry and this watercolor painting technique requires the initial wetted area to be quite wet. It is basically a wet on wet technique. This step is seen in figure 3.

Figure 3: Lay in the sky watercolor wash over the pre wet sky area.
Figure 3: Lay in the sky watercolor wash over the pre wet sky area.

Once the sky is in place, and still wet, you should have some areas where the sky color has pooled, go back into the cloud areas now with just clean water, see figure 4. Again hold the brush so that only the body of it (and not the point) just touches the paper. Where the sky color has pooled it will react with the clean water of your brush as you touch it and create some nice edge variety. It is important in this step to leave some areas of the cloud shapes untouched so they form some nice dry brush edges.

Simple Beach Scene painting the sky and clouds with watercolors
Figure 4: Go over the white clouds with the side of the brush loaded with clean water, let some sky color bleed into the cloud shapes. Leave some cloud edges untouched.

Notice too that I painted into the hills, rather than just painting up to their edge. This will allow the hills to look like they are part of the scene rather than just stuck on which can happen if you try to leave the hill shapes white.

Let this stage dry thoroughly.

Continue to: How to paint sand and hills with watercolor

How to Paint with Watercolors: Simple Painting

Simple Watercolor Painting of a Seascape for beginner watercolor artists

This is a simple painting I usually have my watercolor students do in their second or third class. It gives them experience with most of the different edge effects you can create with watercolor paint and a round brush. As it is painted on a very small sheet there are less problems with areas drying too fast.

Watercolor materials used:

Paper: Arches 300 gsm rough. Size is approximately 18cm x 13 cm

Brushes: Round watercolor brushes sizes 12 and 8

Watercolor paint: Winsor and Newton French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna watercolors

Watercolor techniques taught through this watercolor painting: wet on wet, wet on dry and dry brush. Subjects include:  painting figures, rocks, seagulls, and beach scenes. Atmospheric perspective principles applied to landscape paintings with watercolor are discussed as well.

Drawing techniques taught through this watercolor painting: drawing perspective, how to draw figures.

Reference photograph: No used for this exercise, painted purely from imagination and memory. You can use one of your own reference photographs if you have one as long as it is not too dissimilar to this watercolour painting.

Initial drawing

This is a relatively simple drawing however there are some items you need to get right when drawing a beach scene like this.

Firstly it is a relatively flat beach and the drawing is being done from the perspective of a person on the beach.

Now draw the horizon line. The horizon line is critical in landscape drawings such as this as it determines how much sky you are going to show versus how much sea and beach.  In this case, as I want to cover how to paint simple cloud shapes, something for which watercolor is eminently suitable, I have my horizon line well below the center of the sheet.

The distant hill is drawn next. Make is come out of the water a little bellow the horizon line. After this draw the closest hill and it comes out of the water even lower than the distant hill. This is important as when objects move further away from the foreground their base appears to rise closer towards the horizon or eye level.

I next draw the two people. I draw them so their heads are approximately at the same level as the horizon. If you draw their heads below the horizon they will appear either very short (like drawing children) or that maybe you are trying to draw them from a viewpoint above them. If I have two figures I usually make one a little smaller than the other as it makes for a more interesting design. I only draw their heads, shirts and shorts at this stage.  When drawing figures it is very important not the make their heads too big or they will not look right. In fact you can get away with drawing them smaller than they are but not bigger.

After the figures are in place I draw in some rocks on the bottom of the closest hill and then lightly indicate the waterline for this beach scene. I indicate the position of a group of rocks on the left hand side of the painting which will balance the objects on the right hand side.

Make the sliver of water narrow, otherwise it can look like the water in your painting is trying to flow up hill. I will expand on these issues of drawing beach scenes in future articles and demonstrations.

Drawing for simple painting of a seascape in watercolor
Figure 1: Drawing for simple painting of a seascape in watercolor

We can now start the watercolor painting stage of our simple painting.

Continue to: Painting sky and clouds with watercolor