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How to Paint Water Reflections in Watercolor

Updated on February 28, 2013

Example of Water Reflections in a Water Colour Painting

A perfect example of a water colour painting of water reflecting an object on a bright, calm day.
A perfect example of a water colour painting of water reflecting an object on a bright, calm day. | Source

How to Paint Reflections in Watercolour

Many of the most popular and beautiful water colour landscape paintings involve water. This may be in the form of streams, rivers, lakes or the sea. However, painting water accurately is a tricky task because water behaves differently under different conditions. The conditions determine how the reflections of objects such as trees and buildings appear to the human eye. Portraying the reflection of objects in the vicinity of the water accurately is central to producing a successful water colour painting. It is a complex task which requires much observation, study and practice. This article will talk you through some tips to help you start to paint water reflections in watercolour.

Study and Observe

Spend time studying the water you want to paint in life. Go to the place under various weather conditions on different days and closely observe what the water looks like. Take a water colour sketch pad with you and sketch what you see at different times of the day. A good way to start off is by making small sketches of what you see called thumbnail sketches in your sketch book. Take notes. Try different compositions to see which one works best. Don't be too bothered about the outcome. The point is to draw what you see and to become accustomed to drawing what you see as opposed to what you think you see.


Sketch the water and notice the way the reflections of trees and buildings appear in the water under different conditions. For example, if there are ripples in the water, the reflection will be broken compared to the unbroken image you would see reflected in still water. Try to depict both as accurately as possible in your sketches.


Try to capture these images quickly and do as many of them as you can. Keep practising. At first it will seem alien if you are a beginner, but as you practice, you will become accustomed to drawing what you really see and it will become second nature.


Different Bodies of Water

Understanding some general observations about different bodies of water from the outset is a big help. For example, shallow streams with rocks and debris underneath are likely to produce complex broken reflections as the water moves fluidly over the rocks.


Shallow sea water is likely to be more turquoise in colour than shallow lakes and streams which tend to be more green in colour. The more deep water is, the darker its overall colour appears to the naked eye.

Setting up the Painting

It is truly best to paint landscapes from life if at all possible. If not this is not possible, take lots of reference photos when you go to do your studies and use your sketches plus the reference photos the time for reference. If you have no access at all to a nice landscape for whatever reason, search for reference images on Google and work from those.


Place your sheet of watercolour paper on your drawing board. Soak a large flat paint brush in clean water and drag the brush across the surface of the paper quickly in broad strokes. Ensure that the paper is soaked through. Flatten completely it on the board and tape it down quickly.

Mapping Out the Painting

Using your compositional studies, sketches and your now heightened observation skills, very lightly sketch out the scene. Another thing to note is the length of the reflections. They will change depending on what vantage point you are viewing the scene from. If your eye level is higher up, the reflections will seem much shorter than if your eye level is lower down. If your eye level is level with the horizon line, the reflections will be about as long as the object.


Example of a painting of a Calm day, with Movement in the Water

It is a calm day, but the water is slightly choppy. Notice the effect on the reflection of the boat.
It is a calm day, but the water is slightly choppy. Notice the effect on the reflection of the boat. | Source

Painting Watercolour Reflections on a Bright Calm Day

If the day is bright and calm and the water is still, the image reflected in the water of a tree close to the waters edge for example, will appear as a full mirror image of the actual tree. Ensure that the area where you want to paint the reflection is dry. The reflection of the tree should be painted in darker colours than the real tree.


Dip the paintbrush in the colour you intend to use and dry it off a little with your rag. The aim is to ensure there is enough pigment to lay down some colour without wetting the paper too much. You don’t want the image to bleed into the paper. Wait for it to dry completely before proceeding further. Mix a relatively large amount of water with some colour to make up the colour of the surface of the water. Using a large flat brush, lay down wide washes of the colour over the top of the reflected tree quickly and evenly.

Example of Reflected Light on Calm Water Watercolour Painting

Beautiful reflection of the sun in this. Notice the yellow highlights on the water and the slight ripples in the water, as well as the reflected trees.
Beautiful reflection of the sun in this. Notice the yellow highlights on the water and the slight ripples in the water, as well as the reflected trees. | Source
Perfectly reflected grass on calm water at eye level.
Perfectly reflected grass on calm water at eye level. | Source

Painting Watercolour Reflections on a Windy Day with Choppy Water

Paint the image with gaps in it to represent the choppiness of the water and to show it as being distorted. The broken image should be painted with darker colours. Paint the image using a light hand. Think fluidity as you put the paint down and put it down quickly in short strokes. When it is dry, go over it with the wash which is the main colour of the water. Really feel the choppiness of the water as you lay the wash down quickly, using longer brush strokes in the foreground of the painting than in the background of the painting.

Watercolour Painting showing Choppy Sea

Very choppy sea. Only a vague hint of a reflection of the boat is seen.
Very choppy sea. Only a vague hint of a reflection of the boat is seen. | Source

General Tips

  • Dark colours appear lighter when reflected on the water.
  • Light colours appear darker when reflected on the water.
  • Reflected objects generally appear darker than the real object.
  • The reflected sky is usually a deeper version of the colour of the real sky.
  • Foreground water is usually darker than water in the background.
  • If you are standing directly over clear water, you will see weak reflections, but as you look further out over the water, you will see near perfect mirror images reflected.
  • Only paint what you see, not what you think you see. For example, highlights in paintings which show the reflection of the sun should not be painted in white. Mixing in a bit of yellow is more realistic, but truly observe the colour of the highlights before committing to any particular colour.
  • Painting from life produces the most spontaneous effect and can really help your painting.
  • Work quickly and keep it simple. Don't get into the nitty gritty with unnecessary detail.

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    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      Beautiful and awesome painting. Voted beautiful