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.

Controlled Wet on Wet Technique

Controlled Wet on Wet Technique

As the paper dries, during the wet on wet technique, it will arrive at a point where it has lost its shine, now if at this stage you run the point of your brush across this damp section of paper you will see an interesting effect as shown in figure two. As the paper is no longer very wet, at this point it will actually have less water on it than is on your brush. Now what happens is that instead of the watercolor paint just running down the paper, some of it is actually sucked up into the dryer section of the paper – so you can get a whole range of soft to furry effects both up and down from the position of your brush stroke.  I use this edge in many places within my watercolor paintings. This is a great edge I use for creating soft connections of a boat’s hull with the water so it looks like it is floating, I use it when creating certain shadow shapes, for quickly creating trees and reflections on a distant lake shore and I also use it in my watercolor landscape paintings to create a tree line on top of a hill. Its uses are almost endless!

Controlled Wet on Wet Watercolor Technique
Figure 2: Controlled Wet on Wet Technique for watercolor painting
Controlled Wet on Wet Technique, with addition water brush stroke
Figure 3: Controlled Wet on Wet technique followed by a stroke of clean water to create a shore line
Waterline of Boat painted with controlled wet on wet technique
Figure 4: Waterline of Boat painted with controlled wet on wet technique
Distant tree line painted with controlled wet on wet brush stroke
Figure 5: Distant tree line painted with controlled wet on wet brush stroke

When painting with watercolor you need to take advantage of this interaction of water,watercolor paint and gavity, to create the effects you would like to produce.

This is one of the most difficult of edges to conquer as so much depends on timing (how wet is your water color painting), how wet is your watercolor mixture in your pallet and brush, the anble of your board as well as how fast it is all drying; environmental conditions greatly affect your painting and you must be aware of them. When painting watercolor landscapes plein air environmental conditions are even more critical!

Continue to: Watercolor techniques wet on dry