A Tutorial on How to Paint an Acrylic Lake


Acrylic paints were developed during the 1940s using a polymer base or binder. These paints were found to be quite versatile, but they presented new challenges as well. Due to fast drying times, it was more difficult to work in glazes or thin layers of paint that allow the underlying layers to show through. Using a glazing technique is ideal for painting lakes, because the water in the lake has multiple layers of transparent to translucent color. Painting lakes in acrylics is possible, but it requires the use of a drying retarder such as matte medium.

Things You'll Need

  • Stretched canvas
  • Palette
  • Assorted paintbrushes
  • Assorted acrylic paints
  • Acrylic matte medium
  • Small plastic cup
  • Empty jars
  • Paper towels or rags
  • Fill your jars with warm water. The water-filled jars are for cleaning your brushes. Make sure your jars are large enough to hold brushes without tipping. Depending on the number of colors and brushes you plan on using, you might only need two or three jars.

  • Decide on your colors for the underpainting. Good colors for lake underpainting include pthalo blue, pthalo green, dioxazine purple, mars black and titanium white. White can be used to lighten a color's shade.

  • Put a dab of each undercolor painting onto your palette. Make sure to leave some space between them. Put a little acrylic matte medium in your small cup. The matte medium will be mixed with the paint to thin the paint and allow for better translucence.

  • Mix a little matte medium on your brush to help thin the paint and pick up a small amount of color. Good brushes to use are a large, flat brush, a large filbert or a wash brush.

  • Paint the areas of your painting that are going to be dark with lighter colors and lighter areas with darker colors. Allow your colors to bleed together at the edges. Building up layers in this manner will give your painting more life. Make sure to clean the brush when switching colors, or switch brushes.

  • Clean off your palette. If the paint is still wet you can use a paper towel or rag. If it is dry you can use a paint scraper as long as your palette isn't plastic. A paint scraper might gouge plastic.

  • Put a moderate amount of each of your next layer of colors on your palette. Make sure your first layer is mostly dry to prevent the layers from mixing.

  • Paint your second layer of color. Remember to use the matte medium. At this point you want to start working from either dark to light or light to dark and build up thin, semitranslucent to translucent layers of color. You can continue using the same colors, but do not paint the same color over itself without adding either black or white to it to alter its shade.

  • Continue painting in thin layers, slowly working toward the colors you want to use in your final layers to produce the lake that you want for the finished product. Remember to let a layer dry before starting a new one, use clean brushes for different colors and layers and allow the edges to bleed together between colors so that you create a realistic surface.

  • Clean your palette well after you have the surface of the lake at a point you are pleased with. Put small dabs of your highlight colors on your palette. Highlight colors may include white, permanent green light, iridescent silver and turquoise green. Highlights may be small areas of white water on a disturbed lake surface or reflected light from a late afternoon sun.

  • Pick up a small amount of a highlight color with a clean brush and paint your highlights opaquely where necessary with that color. You want your highlights to be small, subtle but opaque so that they stand out. Always use a clean brush for highlight colors.

  • Continue adding highlights to your lake until you are happy with it. Do not overdo it with the highlights or they might detract from the overall look of the lake.

  • Finish the rest of your painting as needed for the scene that you are depicting. Clean all of your brushes well with warm water and soap. Remove any remaining paint from your palette.

Tips & Warnings

  • Achieve the look of reflected scenery by pulling the wet paint that touches the edge of the lake lightly across its surface in the direction that you want the reflection. Give a little waggle to your stroke to create a wavering reflection.
  • Keep the brushes you are using clean. Switch brushes if they become too saturated with paint.
  • Use a clean brush for new colors to keep from muddying your colors.
  • Acrylics dry quickly, which allows for rapid overpainting, so if you want to work "wet into wet" you will need to work quickly. Adding matte medium will extend drying times.
  • Remember, there is no right or wrong with this process. It is your sky, although some practice with technique may be required to achieve your desired results.
  • Slow-dry medium can be used in place of matte medium, but matte medium seems to produce better luminosity.
  • Some acrylics might contain harmful pigments or other chemicals. Use caution with any paints.

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