Painting Water

Painting water can be tricky.  As humans we have a tendency to employ all our senses when we identify things in our brains.  So when we think  water, we think….wet, flowing, splash, cold or warm, etc.  When what we need to be concentrating on….is what we actually SEE.

To paint water effectively, we need to think of water in painting terms.  What shape is it, what value, what color?  If you look carefully at a photo or at the surface of the water when you are painting outdoors, you will  most likely see colors in the water that are reflected from the scenery around it.  Try to notice how light or dark the colors and shapes are…what is their temperature?  Warm or cool?  Are the colors lighter or darker in the water, browner or bluer?  You also need to figure out the shapes the reflections are casting onto the water.  And lastly, since this is a painting….make sure the water relates to the composition as a whole by using repeated shapes and staying within the same color families.


Generally, reflections have different values than the objects reflecting them.  In the picture above, the darks are reflected slightly lighter than the object, while the light colors in the cliffs are reflected a bit darker.  Still reflections as above are best painted in either the early morning or late afternoon before the wind kicks up.  When I paint out of doors, I always paint the water shapes first, before the light changes.  In the studio, we have the luxury of painting  reflections after you paint the shapes that created them.

 In this painting, it was early morning in the Gorge.  No wind yet, but the river was moving slightly.  It broke up the reflections, but in the still spots, you can still see the mirrored reflections.  This combination of mirror images and shifting reflections shows the slow movement of the water.

Still Water

Still water reflects almost like a mirror in both color and shape.  A few ripples or waves might distort the image slightly and will further the illusion that what you are painting is actually water.  Painting the reflections with similar colors, values, and shapes will help keep the water looking like water.  Keep reflection edges soft.







Moving Water

Moving water reflects less because the surface is broken.  Moving water is generally darker than still water because is does not reflect as much of the sky.  The waves also have value changes, and the areas hit by light will be lighter than the areas in shadow.  Look for wave patterns or wind patterns if painting a lake or bay.  When looking at waterfalls or water rushing over rocks, notice how much the rock colors come through the water.  Paint that color and value.  Remember to squint slightly to determine value or use a red colored gel to help you see darks and lights.




About Sharon McCameron Whyte, MFA

Sharon hails from a military family that has lived all over the globe. Born in Kansas, she has lived in 8 different states, and 3 European countries. She received her BFA and MA from Kansas University, and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Art. She has taught in private schools, European and American Universities and art centers. She now teaches for Clark College and at her studio in Salmon Creek. Sharon specializes in creative painting classes, and organizes creative art getaways through her art workshops called Visual Voyages. Special interest tours include distinctive venues with a visual feast for the senses. She offers instructional tours in painting, photography, nature journaling, wine tasting and drawing. Sharon has conducted workshops in France and Italy, as well as Canada. Recent local plein air workshops include "voyages" to The Royal Tulip Festival in Woodland, Elk Cove Vineyards in Oregon Wine Country, East Fork and Bethany Wineries in Washington, tramps through Cougar and Swift Reservoir Recreational areas, Guided Tours through Portland's Chinese Garden, Weekend Art Getaways on the beach at Lincoln City, Oregon, and urban and country gardens through the northwest.
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