Painting Water In Watercolor – Two Ideas and Methods

“Horizontal-ness and Reflections”

Getting these two things right will make the water in your paintings look right every time!

Important Characteristics Of Water

Water has two important characteristics. Creating a believable sense of water in your paintings means creating the illusion of these two characteristics.

Water is HORIZONTAL – The surface of water in most conditions is flat and horizontal. Rougher water and open ocean may have significant waves, but the surface is still fundamentally horizontal. It is important to create and reinforce the notion ‘horizontal-ness’ on the shapes that represent water in your paintings.

Water is REFLECTIVE – water itself is transparent and has no color. The color we see on the surface of water is due to several factors, the most important of which is reflectivity.  Reflections on the surface of water happen in particular ways that are easy to simulate in your paintings.

Water is also moving. The surface of even the stillest water is easily disturbed by wind and the action of creatures and objects. Movement on the surface interrupts the effects of reflection and, with enough action, the horizontal-ness. In a painting it is the intersection and interaction of ‘horizontal-ness’ and reflection that will create a sense of movement.

Areas Of Attention

Capturing the look of water means emphasizing ‘horizontal-ness’ and reflectivity. In this lesson we’ll pay attention to three things:

HORIZONTAL EDGES – This starts with the initial drawing. Make sure edges of the opposite shorelines are horizontal. These edges may be very distant, as across a wide lake, or nearer like the far side of a puddle.  Draw them carefully using a straight edge if need be.

GRADATION – The surface of water is reflective; think of it as a mirror laid flat and horizontal on the ground plane.  This ‘mirror’ will primarily reflect the sky. Like the sky, these reflections will have gradations; gradual changes in color and value, especially from top to bottom. This is best accomplished by laying in an initial graded wash over shapes that represent water.

REFLECTIONS – Along with the underlying reflection of the sky, water reflects other objects from the landscape. Most of these reflections are of objects that are more vertical than horizontal. Their reflections are also vertical, BUT, the horizontal action of the water breaks, bends and distorts those vertical reflections.  In paint, it’s possible to create the effect by working with horizontal strokes that are vertically connected – think about one stroke at a time working across the paper, moving down, making another stroke, and so on.  Kind of like typing a line of text on a typewriter – across then down.

 Important Watercolor Techniques

Every wash and mark needed to create water in a watercolor painting is nothing more than an easy,  basic watercolor painting technique.

Graded washes are simply wet-in-wet washes with changes to the amount of water and paint. Some deft work with a wet wash done with the side of the brush will result in rough texture that simulates sparkling highlights. Although the brush is not dry, this is essentially the drybrush technique.

Reflections are best added as more-or-less horizontal strokes done dry-in-wet. Interruptions in the reflections can be accomplished easily with a small flat brush and the lift technique.

Together, these are the four watercolor painting techniques that are the foundation of practically every watercolor painting.

If you are unfamiliar with or just want to practice the basic techniques, watch and follow along these tutorial lessons. There are three textures possible in watercolor painting – soft, hard, and rough. We’ll be using all three to create great looking streams, lakes and ocean. The last link is for a short tutorial shows how to create each.

Wet-In-Wet

Dry-In-Wet

Drybrush and Lift

Three Basic Textures

What you’ll need

  • Brushes – Large, Medium and Small rounds.
  • Colors – Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Aureolin Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna
  • Watercolor paper – preferably Arches 140lb Cold Press cut to about 7″ x 11″ or so

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