Secrets to Painting Convincing Water Reflections

Water is one of the most sought-out subjects in paintings. In this mini-tutorial, you’ll learn some valuable pointers on painting water reflections. There are several conditions of water that you will find in nature, which you’ll want to consider when planning a landscape painting:

  1. Still water (common in ponds and small lakes when no wind is present.)
  2. Water moving lazily (the most suitable in paintings when water reflections are desired.)
  3. Water ripples with more motion (common in river and streams.)
  4. Water so disturbed you can’t see reflections (large bodies of water such as lakes and seascapes on a windy day.)

Painting Water with Johannes Vloothuis |

Unless the water is running over a down slope, the wind is what disturbs the water, creating the diverse reflections listed above.

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Advice for painting water, at

Left: Wind is not affecting this still water. Right: Water moving in a lazy disturbance.

Many professional artists depict water that is moving lazily (above, right). You will often see this in paintings that show lakes. Artists tend to avoid the mirrored effect of still water because it competes too much with the other half of the painting. Notice the forms are not broken until after about two-thirds of the way down. That breaking-up effect is very pleasing when it is not overdone.

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This water is so disturbed you can’t see reflections.

The photo reference above would end up being boring in a painting because many square inches repeat the same visual information. Painting water like this will not work well in most paintings unless special effects are used, such as glistening sunlight hitting a portion of the water surface or the addition of visual interest, such as boats.

Tips for painting water, at

You can see how these principles are applied to this painting of String Lake.

Rules of Thumb for Painting Water Reflections:

  • Whatever is dark on dry land will be lighter in the water.
  • Whatever is light on dry land will be darker in the water.
  • Colors become less saturated in water reflections. Even white will need to be grayed down in the water.
  • Details are left out. Only the basic smudges of color are needed.
  • Avoid all hard edges in water reflections.
  • Because water is denser than air, it will absorb light. Therefore do not repeat the same value of the sky in the water reflections. Water will almost always be darker than the sky it is mirroring.

“The Complete Essentials of Painting Water” and other video courses are available at North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at

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