How To Paint Reflections and Movement On Water

Consistent Direction, Contrast and Some Linear Perspective

This lesson shows how to paint movement – waves, ripples and other rhythms – on the surface of water. The lesson is only a quick study but it includes important ideas that will work for most water that has movement on the surface.

Ripples, Waves and Movement

Nearly any body of water will have some movement on the surface. In a painting, it is important to include some indication of movement and reflection on any water since the viewer needs these to identify that the shape represents some kind of water.

There are two things that will ensure that the ‘symbols’ used make the water look right.

Consistentcy Of Direction

One of these is consistency of direction.  Movement on the surface of water can seem random, but it is actually mathmatical and consistent.  This means ripples and waves move along the surface in an orderly way.  Distance between each peak is regular but also subject to the guidelines of linear perspective.

This lesson shows how to create this consistency and to use linear perspective to support rhythm and movement while also creating a sense of space and distance.


Contrast between the lighter surface and reflections of landscape elements around the body of water set up the visual cues viewers need to understand the effect.  When looking at the reflective surface of water, it is unusual to NOT have dark reflections.  In any case, it is important to include dark reflections on any shape that represents water in your paintings.

Important Concept For Painting Many Kinds Of Water

This lesson is focused on one type of simple reflection on calm water. The idea and methods for creating these reflections and the movement they reveal applies to moving water in streams, rivers and even oceans.

What you’ll need

  • Brushes – Medium and Small Rounds
  • Colors – Cobalt Blue, Thalo Blue, Burnt Sienna, Alizarin Crimson
  • Paper – a small piece, 5″ x 7″ or so – Arches 140lb Cold Press recommended

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