Evaluation and Reflection: Always Wanted To Learn How To Paint Water Realistically

Water is one of the most compelling subjects to paint, and yet it can all end so badly (as above). The problem often is; where to start?

I wrestled with creating the illusion of fluidity, clarity and some semblance of realism for a long time.

Eventually I discovered a way of looking at water that allows us to recreate it in almost any circumstance. 

The trick is to break it down into manageable pieces, rather than try and paint it in its entirety.  When you understand how these pieces affect each other, learning how to paint water becomes much easier.   You will find that you may look at water in an entirely different way.

Before we start, however, there are a couple of things I need to say. When painting something realistically there are two overriding skills needed, and particularly when learning to paint water:

  • Firstly, your technical ability, or your ability to use a brush, mix colour etc. 
  • Secondly, your ability to observe, and find the detail necessary to create something that is convincing.

This tutorial is primarily about the “details” I use when painting water. 

The next point is that this strategy is not the only way, nor possibly the best way. But it works brilliantly for me, and hopefully will for you, as you learn how to represent water in your paintings.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into it!

When learning to paint water realistically, it is important to consider that the appearance of water is made up of four elements:

  • The substrate (or bottom. No, not bottoms. This is how to paint water – not how to paint figures).
  • The colour of the water (determined by what is suspended in it)
  • The surface of the water
  • The lightNow we’ll look at each of them in a little more detail:

My Table Background Colours

The Substrate

The substrate could be made up of shell, gravel, coral, river stones; or if you live in a major city, car bodies and small calibre pistols.

Whatever the substrate, depending on the other elements, you will be seeing a lot of it, or not much.  Next trip to the beach, lake or swamp, check out how much of the substrate you can see.

My Table Background Colors

The Colour of The Water

imageThis is determined by the sediment it is carrying. After rain, chances are that the water in your local river will be tainted with sediment. After a lot of rain, sometimes there is so much sediment that seeing the bottom is almost impossible (unless the water is very shallow).

Obviously, not much sediment and clean water will minimise the impact that the colour of the water has on the substrate. 

A lovely example is a lake in my area that is stained with a tannin from the trees around it.

how to paint water - substrate stained with tannin

It has a fantastic reddish tinge to it, and is as dark as cola (arguably better for you than cola, despite the number of small children that swim in it). When you look at the water in this lake it is very easy to see how the colour of the water impacts the colour of the substrate. 

My Table Background Colors

The Surface of The Water

This is probably the most important element of all when learning how to paint water.  The surface of the water is affected by many different things, ripples caused by wind, children splashing, boats, etc. You get the picture. The interesting thing about the surface of the water, is that it impacts the appearance of water in two ways:

  • Refraction, and
  • Reflection


When water moves, it concentrates and dissipates light. Each wave, whether small or large, will form a lens. Light will be concentrated – forming that wonderful pattern that is thrown on the bottom of a pool just after everyone has got out.

This effect occurs to varying degrees depending on how rough or smooth the surface is, and the strength of the light. Less light = less refraction. More light = more refraction.

We’ll go into some painting techniques to create this effect a little later.

how to paint water - example of reflection


Each time a wave rises, big or small, it reflects light. Whatever is behind the wave (relative to you) needs to be represented – regardless of the substrate, and regardless of the colour of the water.

A sunlit blue sky will show a sunlit blue reflection. A beautiful sunset will reflect the beautiful sunset. That’s all fairly obvious, but…….. you may not have considered that each time a wave forms, its face creates a window. This allows you to see under the surface (if the water is relatively clear).

Think of the face of the wave towards you as a window to under the surface. Think of everything else as a reflection of the light.  Windows and mirrors.


The Light

Thankfully we have just covered it. The light we see on the water is directly impacted by the surface. Read above Refraction and Reflection sections again for a refresher on light.


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