How to Paint Realistic Water

If your landscapes are let down by unsophisticated seas or rivers, you are in good company.

Water is one of the most difficult things to render realistically, and even accomplished artists struggle to get it right. This is mostly because it is both translucent and reflective, but also because it is constantly moving. From stormy seas to serene lakes, we’ve put together some of our top tips for making the water in your painting look realistic.

1.  Painting Calm Water

If your water is still enough to reflect the objects around it (such as a tree) you’ll notice that the reflection is muted in colour and tone than the real object. For example, dark trunks or bushes will seem slightly faded. Bright-colours (for example, the brightness of the sky) are also muted- so the overall palette of the reflected scene is more limited than the ‘real’ scene.

Try using a slightly darker shade for the light objects, and mixing a small amount of white to soften the darker areas. Alternatively, you could paint the reflection using the normal colours and ‘glaze’ with an acrylic glazing liquid and a small amount of white paint once.

2. Painting Moving Water

Running water looks white, whether the movement is coming from wind moving the water (such as waves on the sea) or from the water itself. If you are painting a strong storm scene or a powerful body of water, like a waterfall, you’ll need to use energetic and varied strokes to show movement and force. Be bold with your brush and use a combination of strokes, including some stippling to show the ‘spray’.

Practice on some rough paper before working on your precious canvas first! Waves are movement, so will be white where the water breaks, along with darker areas to show depth.

3. Painting Rain

Rain is tricky to paint, as it requires both reflection and movement, but watercolours are particularly suitable to painting a rainy scene. In a city scene, work in patches of a wet wash to create the feeling of a reflection from the pavements, and try applying coarse salt to the paint as it dries to create extra texture. You can also experiment with using a spray bottle of water. Play close attention to creating a dark and cloudy sky, to make the picture feel complete.

4. Painting a Glass of Water

If you have a glass of water in a still life, you’ll notice how it contains a distorted and refracted reflection of the rest of the scene. The colours stay the same, but inside the glass is a shrunken and distorted version of the picture.

Play close attention to the shapes made by the water in the glass (it’s almost like drawing negative space!) and use a very thin brush of white paint to outline the rim of the glass and the water inside it, as well as show the reflections on the glass. You can also use wet on wet techniques (working into a wet page or canvas) to give some fluidity to the picture.

So much of painting is learning through experimentation, so find what works for you and keep trying new things to expand your knowledge! What are your favourite techniques for painting water?

Author: Clara Tait

Above Artwork, with thanks to: (from top to bottom) Emma Bell, Derek C Wicks, Minh Dam, Craig Stephens.

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