How to Paint Realistic Water

Written by kathryn stanley
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How to Paint Realistic Water
To paint water realistically, always paint exactly what you see. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Painting water in a realistic fashion can be challenging but is really a matter of patience and making sure to draw what you see. People have a tendency to rely on memory when drawing or painting, and this is what most frequently yields unrealistic results. Painting realistic water requires studying the subject or a photograph of the subject and using a broad palette of colours, as water is never just blue. With some practice and attention to the details of the subject, you should be able to learn to paint water realistically.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

Things you need

  • Easel (optional)
  • Pencil
  • Paintbrushes
  • Paint palette
  • Tarp (optional)
  • If painting with watercolour:
  • Watercolour paper
  • Watercolour paints
  • Water
  • If painting with oil:
  • Primed canvas
  • Oil paints
  • Turpentine
  • Linseed oil
  • If painting with acrylic:
  • Primed canvas
  • Acrylic paints
  • Water

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  1. 1

    Determine what you would like to paint. It will be more difficult to paint a body of water -- whether it be a pond, river, or the ocean -- from real life than from a still photograph.

  2. 2

    Set up your space. If you are painting indoors and are worried about getting paint on the floor, put down a tarp. Set up your brushes and cup of water for rinsing your brushes. Set up your paint palette. Do not just reach for the blue paint. Squeeze out a substantial dob of every colour. The colour you will most likely need the most is white, for mixing purposes, so start off with more white paint than other colours.

  3. 3

    Study the photograph or subject that you are about to paint. In order to produce realistic water, you should spend significantly more time looking at the subject than at your painting.

  4. 4

    Sketch the basic layout of your painting on to your canvas with a pencil.

  5. 5

    Begin painting. It is best to begin with the deepest areas of the body of water first, as these tend to be the darkest areas. Use lighter colours to demonstrate the change in depth of the water. Gradually blend the colours. Remember to alternate between looking at the subject/photograph and your painting every few seconds, to ensure that you're not making it up based on your knowledge of "what water looks like."

  6. 6

    Rinse your brush in water for acrylic or watercolour paints, or turpentine for oil paints. Thin your paint with water or linseed oil and do a light wash in areas of more shallow water, such as puddles or very shallow areas of a river.

  7. 7

    Integrate reflections as you paint the body of the water by noting the object that is being reflected. Do not simply plop white paint onto your body of water for areas of reflections. Reflections are never white, but rather are some shade of the object that is being reflected. Paint these reflections as if you are painting the object being reflected, such as a tree, but with a more smudged, rippled effect. If there are objects underwater, such as rocks, paint in the full object, then use a thin glaze of paint over top of the part of the object that is underwater. Objects that are underwater are usually darker where they are wet, as well as at the surface or waterline.

  8. 8

    Paint ripples and unevenness of the water's surface by dragging your brush in a light zigzag fashion all over the area of water on the canvas. Alternate between slightly lighter and slightly darker values of the shade that you are using.

  9. 9

    Build up colour to demonstrate depth. Your water will seem much more realistic if it has multiple layers of paint. Play around with the thickness of your paint - thin your paint more and more as you continue to add layers, so that your previous layers come through as well.

  10. 10

    Once you are finished, stand back and look at your painting from a distance. This is a great technique that allows you to see where you need to continue painting. If there are areas that need to be corrected, do so.

Tips and warnings

  • It is helpful to have an understanding of value, hue, colour, and reflection to paint water realistically. However, it is still possible to do so even if you do not - just always make sure to be painting exactly what you see.

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