How to Make Water Look Real on Paper

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Golden skies reflect on the water.
Golden skies reflect on the water. (Image: gold water image by Qdigits from Fotolia.com)

Creating the realism of water on paper is a challenge that professional and week-end artists have worked to master for centuries. Practice and following some basic rules, will make it possible to accomplish realistic-looking water. The rules dictate the flow of the water, the reflections in the water and the changing values for creating the feeling of distance.

Things You'll Need

  • Paint
  • Painting surface
  • Brushes

Add colors to the water as you paint the sky, matching color placement in preparation for reflections.

The water captures the colors of the sky.
The water captures the colors of the sky. (Image: polar sky image by Artiom Radonezhskiy from Fotolia.com)

Paint the water using horizontal strokes. This rule is important for all types of water. It keeps the water from feeling as if it is running off the paper. Currents and directional flow around objects will be added later.

Horizontal patterns in the water.
Horizontal patterns in the water. (Image: water reflections image by Auran from Fotolia.com)

Create the reflections in the water by either pulling color into the water from the object being reflected, or by painting the colors into the water below the object. The rule to follow is that the colors in the reflection are always one value darker than the reflected object. Darken the value by adding a small dab of black to the color.

Calm waters mirror the images above.
Calm waters mirror the images above. (Image: water reflections image by Edsweb from Fotolia.com)

Blend the colors into the water with a soft, clean, dry brush. Stroke gently in both directions to help move the paint of both the water and the reflection into each other in a random horizontal pattern. Wipe the blending brush off if it builds up too much color as you blend.

Reflections blend smoothly into the water.
Reflections blend smoothly into the water. (Image: lakes land image by Kushnirov Avraham from Fotolia.com)

Dab small amounts of color into the water and blend with the soft brush. The more you blend, the softer the reflection will be. Gentle blending gives the water a glaze that makes it feel like glass.

Soft reflection duplicate the colors of the sky.
Soft reflection duplicate the colors of the sky. (Image: sunset image by Denis Makarov from Fotolia.com)

Create the feeling of distance by making the horizon a lighter value than the foreground. Do this by adding a small amount of white to the color. The same rule applies to the sky. The sky farthest from the horizon is a darker value than the horizon.

Look toward the horizon.
Look toward the horizon. (Image: looking into the horizon image by Sebastian from Fotolia.com)

Experiment with values. A progression of lighter values gives the feeling of distance.

Mountain-color values lighten as they go into the distance.
Mountain-color values lighten as they go into the distance. (Image: sunsets image by Tadija Savic from Fotolia.com)

Complete the water by adding currents to the water over the reflections and value changes. Thin strokes randomly painted across reflections will give a feeling of water movement. Add a few off-white horizontal lines along the shore line. Varying the thickness of the lines will give the feeling or ripples off the shore.

Paint circular ripples around an object in the water, but still maintain the overall horizontal effect.

Circles ripple around the duck
Circles ripple around the duck (Image: bird silhouette image by Lucy Clark from Fotolia.com)

Paint in waves in a seascape. The waves will follow the curve of the shoreline, but the main water flow still remains horizontal.

Waves crash on the shore
Waves crash on the shore (Image: majestic waves 9. image by mdb from Fotolia.com)

Finish the painting by putting final highlights on areas that capture the most light.

Light  bounces off the ripples of the water
Light bounces off the ripples of the water (Image: swan on water with reflection stars, clipping path image by Nataliya Hora from Fotolia.com)

References

  • "Color Mixing for Artists;" Lidzey, Mirza, Harris and Galton; 2002
  • "Romantic Oil Painting Made Easy;" Robert Hagan; 1995
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