Water is one of the most sought-out subjects in paintings. In this mini-tutorial, you’ll learn valuable pointers on painting water reflections.
You can find several conditions of water in nature, which are important to consider when planning a landscape painting:
- Still water (common in ponds and small lakes when no wind is present)
- Water moving lazily (the most suitable in paintings when water reflections are desired)
- Water ripples with more motion (common in river and streams)
- Water so disturbed you can’t see reflections (large bodies of water such as lakes and seascapes on a windy day)
Unless water is running over a down slope, the wind is what disturbs it, creating the diverse reflections and variances listed above.
Left: Wind is not affecting this still water. Right: Water moving in a lazy disturbance.
Many professional artists depict water moving lazily (above, right). You will often see this in paintings with lakes. Artists tend to avoid the mirrored effect of still water because it competes too much with other areas of the artwork. Notice the forms are not broken until after about two-thirds of the way down. That breaking-up effect is very pleasing when it is not overdone.
This water is so disturbed you can’t see reflections.
The photo reference above would end up being a little dull in a painting because many square inches repeat the same visual information. Painting water in this setting won’t well in most paintings unless special effects are used, such as glistening sunlight hitting a portion of the water surface or the addition of visual interest, like boats.
You can see how these principles are applied to this painting of String Lake.
Rules of Thumb for Painting Water Reflections:
- Whatever is dark on dry land will be lighter in the water.
- Whatever is light on dry land will be darker in the water.
- Colors become less saturated in water reflections. Even white will need to be grayed down in the water.
- Details are left out. Only the basic smudges of color are needed.
- Avoid all hard edges in water reflections.
- Because water is denser than air, it will absorb light. Therefore do not repeat the same value of the sky in the water reflections. Water will almost always be darker than the sky it is mirroring.