The Art of Painting Water: 4 Plein Air Tips

Plein air painting by John Hulsey--Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro, oil on canvas, 30 x 40. All works by John Hulsey.

Water is perhaps one of the more challenging subjects to paint convincingly in a plein air landscape painting. Whether one is inspired by the ocean, a river, or a pond or lake, each subject requires a studied familiarity and often distinctly different paint handling.

Here are a just a few tips that we consider helpful when painting water:

1: The sky and the water generally share the same colors, although the water will be darker in value. Draw a solid horizon or shore line and block them in at the same time to make sure they have shared colors. 

2: Ocean waves in constant motion present a challenge for the plein air painter because you want to capture the movement and the light effects that occur in breaking waves. The wave changes color and value as it gains height and thins out just before breaking. Until a wave begins to break, it shares the color of the sky. As it rises, it becomes a transparent window into the wave itself, and so turns greenish, and may even pick up the color of the sand for an instant just as it breaks. A great way to quickly get proficient at painting waves is to paint with only a palette knife. 

Plein air painting by John Hulsey--Gore Creek
Gore Creek I, oil on canvas, 36 x 48.
Plein air painting by John Hulsey--In the Spring Garden IV
In the Spring Garden IV, watercolor, 12 x 16.

3. Still water on lakes, ponds and even placid rivers presents the challenge of painting reflections, often filled with sunrise or sunset colors. Maxfield Parrish used to build a model landscape on a mirror in order to get his reflections right in his realistic studio paintings. In plein air, however, we must analyze on the spot, and render those reflections in a much looser, more gestural way. Unless the reflection is your subject, try rendering it as a large tonal mass of color, rather than a lot of individual strokes.  Keep in mind that reflections are always darker than the object itself. Water surfaces scatter light and therefore are not perfect mirrors. It gets really complicated when a reflection is combined with transparency effects in shallow water, where the bottom can show through to the surface.
4. Painting water-lilies or leaves floating on water adds an object and therefore a shadow onto a reflective surface, interrupting what could otherwise be a smooth expanse of color.  A good approach with opaque mediums is to paint the water first and add the reflections, objects, and shadows, later. Watercolor requires an entirely different approach and multiple techniques–carefully painting the surface colors around any objects or reflections, leaving “holes” to fill in later. There isn’t much room in watercolor to fix mistakes and perhaps that’s why we like it.  But there is something very synergistic about using watercolors to paint water that just feels right.

What "water works" have you done lately? Leave a comment with links to your work and your own tips you've discovered for painting various bodies of water.

For more in-depth articles on plein air painting, visit us at The Artist’s Road.

–John and Ann

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Plein Air Painting Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Painting Water: 4 Plein Air Tips

  1. One of the things I’ve discovered is that every color under sun or moon is possible. So if in doubt just put the colors in, and don’t worry about “getting it right”. If you’ve been around water, greens, pinks, purples, plus myriad reflections, and layers are possible. “Cuyahoga” entering the locks, Lake Superior.

  2. It has been my experience that:
    On still waters, reflections of dark objects are usually a little lighter and reflections of light objects are usually a little darker.

    In the painting “In the Spring Garden IV”, above, the fish almost appear floating on the surface.
    Since the top of the fish is closer to the surface, it would have the most local intense color, but as the side of the fish slopes away from the viewer, I think it should reflect the color of objects from below or in the water, thus creating the illusion of being submerged.