What Color is Water? Blue and Beyond, in Watercolor

With a step-by-step demo and insights on value, color, and reflections, watercolorist Kris Parins demystifies painting water.

By Kris Parins

In Tufted Puffins II (watercolor on paper, 14 1⁄2×21 1⁄2), the birds had a stone cliff behind them, which darkened the appearance of the water; in this case, there weren’t any sky reflections.

When I was first becoming serious about watercolor painting, I’d sit at the end of our dock staring at the lake, struggling to figure out what makes water look like water. What color is water? What are the visual cues? How do we know at a glance, even at a distance, that it’s wet? Here are some of my general guidelines, along with three specific areas — value, color, and reflection and shadow — to consider when painting water.

  • Paint water in a fresh and transparent manner.
  • Values are more important than colors when painting water; water doesn’t have to be blue.
  • The surface of a body of water seeks flatness, and the horizon above a body of water is level.
  • Reflections are the biggest clue that a surface is wet.
  • Distant water reflects; near water is more transparent.
  • Waves in the distance appear smaller, closer together, less defined and lighter than those in the foreground.
  • The distant shore of a lake or stream often has a lighter band along the bank, separating the foliage from the reflection.
  • Lifting a minimal number of horizontal lines with a thirsty brush informs viewers that they’re seeing water.

Value

Tan and olive shades in Shore Bird (watercolor on paper, 15×21) reveal the sandy bottom of this shallow shoreline. An overcast sky results in no blue reflections on the water.

Getting the degrees of lightness or darkness, or values, correct is far more important than matching the colors that you see in water. If the values are accurate, the strokes will read as water and can be any color in the spectrum. When working from a color reference photo, convert it to black and white so that you’re more easily able to see the light, mid and dark values. Follow this with a quick value sketch, and you’ll be able to simplify your painting plan.

Color

In Morning Mirror (watercolor on paper, 29×21), the egret’s head is hidden, but in the reflection, the viewer is able to see the bird’s head tucked under its wing.

The sky is the biggest influence on the color of a body of water. Generally lightest at the horizon, the sky becomes more intense directly overhead. It reflects in the water the same way — lightest in the distance and darkest near the viewer.

If there’s bright sunlight, the reflections can be stunning on relatively calm sunlit water. If the sky is overcast, the water’s surface will appear flat and nearly white.

Another element that determines the color of water is the transparency of the water itself; is it crystal-clear spring water, or is it opaque with brown delta mud? What about the bottom surface of the body of water? Is it perhaps sand? Finally, the reflection of the shore has an influence on the apparent color of the water, as in Tufted Puffins II, above.

Reflection and Shadow

Wet-into-wet soft reflections give the water surface in Turtle Bay (watercolor on paper, 14 1⁄2×10 1⁄2) a glassy appearance, while the drybrush drag in the foreground indicates sparkle. Note that the reflection doesn’t need to be exactly accurate to be convincing.

A reflection can be soft or hard depending on the water’s surface, the quality of light and the distance from the viewer. It always points toward the viewer. When it’s crossed or broken with horizontal ripples, our brains tell us that we’re seeing water.

Reflections should usually be a shade lighter or darker than the objects being reflected, and distorting the shapes adds to the illusion of wetness and waves. Note that a reflection isn’t a “flip” of an object; it’s actually a different view. We’re able to see a bit of the underside that’s not visible when looking at the object straight on. Shadows, meanwhile, are cast away from the light source. When combined with reflections, the scene can become quite complicated.

About Reference Photos

Until you develop a good working knowledge and an artistic water vocabulary, using reference photos of different types of water can be very helpful in the painting process. By taking photos to freeze the continuous motion of waves, you’re able to analyze the structure of the reflections and values. Once you’ve gained some understanding and confidence, you can begin to improvise.

DEMO: Painting the Color of Water

The Artist’s Toolkit

  • PAINTS: Winsor & Newton aureolin, rose madder genuine, Antwerp blue, burnt sienna, and aqua green, and Mission cobalt No. 1
  • SURFACE: Arches 140-lb. cold- pressed paper
  • BRUSHES: Robert Simmons 2-inch Skyflow; Winsor & Newton One Stroke 1-inch sable; Loew-Cornell 8050 Mixtique No. 1 rigger; variety of synthetic and sable round brushes; old or inexpensive brushes for applying masking fluid
  • OTHER: Incredible White Mask liquid frisket, Gator Board, staples

Color Planning Process

As part of my planning process for Top Bird, I tested many blue pigments to see their range and the way they act on the paper.

My paintings proceed more smoothly when I select my main three colors in advance and then add other colors as needed. I like to make a bagel-sized wet-into-wet color wheel of my three main paints so I can observe how they interact and whether they communicate the intended mood.

When looking for color combinations, these tests serve as a valuable resource. I find it helpful to label and date my color wheel tests and keep them in a big scrapbook.


Step 1

I transferred my drawing and masked the whites with Incredible White Mask and an old brush. Then I wet the paper and, using a large flat brush, I stroked in a variety of blues, keeping the lightest blue values at the horizon and the darkest turquoise shades in the foreground. Before it dried, I sponged off some cloud shapes with a tissue, and I spattered clear water for texture.


Step 2

By painting the very darkest values in the foreground waves, I was able to observe the full range of values that I would include.


Step 3

I continued to work the entire painting, which kept me from getting too detailed in any one area. I removed the mask.


Step 4

The whites in the foreground water seemed too stark and bright, so I toned them with a light value and continued to work on the reflections and waves in the distance.


Step 5: Final

Top Bird (watercolor on paper 21×29) by Kris Parins

Because the foreground and distant water appeared distinctly different from each other, I glazed them using thin washes to blend them. I continued to add darks and details to the pelicans, docks and background until Top Bird (watercolor on paper, 21×29) felt complete.


Brushstrokes and Techniques

Brookside (watercolor on paper, 10 1⁄2×14 1⁄2) features a combination of still pools, indicated with lifted vertical lines, and shallow rushing water, created with drybrush drag. The browns of the sand bottom and tannin-stained water determined the burnt sienna color palette.

Consider the following brushstrokes or techniques to create various water effects.

  • Drybrush drag: creates sunlit sparkle, as in Brookside and Turtle Bay
  • Wet-into-wet charge: results in reflections on the water’s surface
  • Lift: creates horizontal and vertical lines of reflected light when using a thirsty brush
  • Wet-on-dry stroke: creates fine ripples and detail
  • Mask: makes hard-edged waves and sharp reflections, as in Tufted Puffins II
  • Wet-into-wet spatter using paint or clear water: creates a convincing texture

Award-winning watercolor artist KRIS PARINS is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America. See more of her work and learn more at krisparins.com.

A version of this article first appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine. Looking for more tips on painting water and seascapes? Check out our roundup of techniques in How to Paint Seascapes and Water in Any Medium.

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