Steps in Painting Watery Reflections

Not so surprisingly, watercolour is a great medium to use for painting water, even if it may look intimidating to do. 

This is especially true when bodies of water are calm enough to take on a more reflective property, like some sort of distorted mirror. 

But I hope to get your feet wet in this quick tutorial, and show you how to paint watery reflections in 4 simple steps! 

Step 1: Pick a Base “Water” Colour

Of course, the first choice you’ll need to make is what kind of scene you want to paint. It can be a lake scene, beach scene, or even a river scene. 

Just remember that reflections only show in calmer waters, so whatever the scene, it should be a more peaceful/idyllic one.

You can do a quick pencil sketch beforehand to see where each major element goes.

Pay special attention to the horizon line, as this will also affect where the reflections are placed. 

Bonus Tip: Things in the water like a boat, rock, tree, etc will also be reflected, so keep those in mind as well, since they will make your painting more complicated. Feel free to leave them out, or keep them for a challenge!

Once you’ve decided, check the base colour of your body of water.

Clean/shallow water leans on the light blue, aquamarine/green side, while dirty/deep water is usually a darker blue or green colour. 

There are also clearer reflections in calmer waters, so decide what kind of effect you would like ahead of time.

Another thing to keep in mind is that water reflects the sky’s colour a little.

If the sky is a clear blue, it may not make too much of a difference, but if there’s any other colour, you’ll need to include this into your water’s base colour. 

Step 2: Use the Wet-in-Wet Technique for a Watery Effect

Once you’ve decided on your composition and colours, it’s time to paint. I strongly recommend painting from top to bottom and save the water areas for last.

After the non-water areas have dried, start painting the water using the “wet-in-wet” technique, where you wet the paper with clean water before dropping in your paint colours. 

Start with your lightest background colours, which are the sky colours and the main colour you’ve decided to make your body of water.

Bonus tip: Prop your painting with an easel or something that will help angle it downwards, so gravity can create this subtle “trickle” effect in your watered-down paints!

The darkest colours will be right underneath things that are closest to or that are on top of the water, as these areas are in shadow. 

This includes the area under river banks/landmasses like islands, boats, or anything else in the water.

The only exception will be if the object reflected is white in colour or far away, such as distant mountains or clouds. 

Paint in horizontal strokes as well, which is the general direction of water flow.

Also, remember to preserve a few rivulets of white for a “sparkling surface” effect to reflect well-lit sections.

Step 3: Mirroring

To paint the rest of the reflections, you’ll need to reuse all of the main colours used in subjects that are reflected. 

It’s also a good idea to paint while your paper is still wet, so work fast! If it’s already dry, just carefully rewet the part where the reflection is before painting.

Tip: If you really need to, you can pencil in the shape of the reflection first, although don’t get into too much detail, as they should still look quite fluid and free. You can even get a pocket mirror and place it under any object that meets the water line for a better idea of how the reverse image looks! 

For each reflected object, paint as though there was a mirror along the line where the object meets the water, and slowly work your way down. 

It doesn’t have to be to the exact same scale (it could be a little more squished depending on the painting’s perspective), nor should it be an exact reflection, like an actual mirror. 

Just keep following the same horizontal brushstrokes, and add the reflected colours in the general area.

I recommend using a large round brush to prevent yourself from painting too precisely, and to vary your brushstroke sizes – thicker strokes towards the front, and thinner ones towards the horizon line.

Don’t worry about small details either, as they will be lost in this watered-down reflection.

Also, remember that the clearer the reflection, the calmer the body of water will appear, so make adjustments as you see fit.

Step 4: Don’t Forget Your Values!

Once you’re pretty much done with the reflections, take a step back and see where you might need to adjust your values (i.e. lights vs. darks). 

While Darks will again be found in the shadowed areas, while lights will be found where the sun is reflected (if there is one), or even along the shimmering surface of the water.

You can also switch to the “wet-on-dry” technique (i.e. wait for the paper to dry before painting on top) to get clearer ripples on the water’s surface and to help add more contrast and visual texture to your overall painting.

Either way, try not to overdo this, as you’re just going for a general effect.

It’s also best to go with a looser style since water should have a more “free flow” feeling!

Flow like Water

It will take a little practice to understand how to paint a watery effect, but once you loosen up, it’s actually not that difficult at all!

In fact, it’s probably the easiest type of reflection to paint, as your brushstrokes don’t have to be so detailed and precise compared to painting reflections in mirrors, cars, or even glass.

In any case, the best advice I can give is just to relax, and have fun painting in a looser style!

Even if you find it’s not your taste, it’s good to chill once in a while and go with the flow.  

Have you painted a watery surface before? Or try a more free-form painting style? Share with us in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.  
Tagged with: art tips watercolour
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