How to Make Water Look Real on Paper

Judy Filarecki

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.

Golden skies reflect on the water.

The rules dictate the flow of the water, the reflections in the water and the changing values for creating the feeling of distance.

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

  2. Horizontal patterns in the water.
  3. 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.

  4. Calm waters mirror the images above.
  5. 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.

  6. Reflections blend smoothly into the water.
  7. 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.

  8. Soft reflection duplicate the colors of the sky.
  9. 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.

  10. Look toward the horizon.
  11. 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.

  12. Mountain-color values lighten as they go into the distance.
  13. Experiment with values. A progression of lighter values gives the feeling of distance.

  14. 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.

  15. Circles ripple around the duck
  16. Paint circular ripples around an object in the water, but still maintain the overall horizontal effect.

  17. Waves crash on the shore
  18. Paint in waves in a seascape. The waves will follow the curve of the shoreline, but the main water flow still remains horizontal.

  19. Light  bounces off the ripples of the water
  20. Finish the painting by putting final highlights on areas that capture the most light.