The Art of Painting Water: 4 Plein Air Tips

6 Apr 2011

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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crowdaddy wrote
on 7 Apr 2011 7:45 AM

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.

on 7 Apr 2011 2:05 PM

Thanks for writing Doug.  We enjoyed seeing your Great Lakes watercolors on your website.

Ann and John

JoeFR wrote
on 10 Jul 2012 3:17 PM

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.


Topics wrote
on 2 Jan 2015 6:22 PM

[] Painting water If an artist steps outside the