top of page

Painting Water Reflections

This blog along with the previous 4, and the next 22 are designed specifically for the Plein Air Adventure class to go along with the demonstrations I do before each class. The info works just as well for studio paintings.

First, study the scene. I usually do a quick value sketch of the scene as a way to study it. What I'm looking for is the edge where the darkest dark meets the lightest light-otherwise known as the focal point.

Here' the waterline is the darkest dark with tree trunks on the distant shore. The light on the bank is the focal point, followed second by the light through the trees. As an artist, I can change the focal point to either by playing it up a bit.

I also pay attention to the values in the water reflections. Here the reflection is lighter and warmer than the actual trees. This is because the shallow water reads brownish from the mud under the surface and warms up the reflection.

What attracts me to this scene is the abstract reflections in the water and the hanging Spanish moss. I'll be making sure to include both in my painting.

Important tips for painting water reflections in plein air:

1. As above, so below: when you paint something above the waterline, make sure you reflect it below the waterline. Note that the waterline is always straight and flat unless some landscape feature like a plant grows in front of it. Water is always flat! Try not to curve it, it always lays flat but the banks and plants can overlap it and give it a curved appearance.

While you have that pastel in your hand (or color on your brush) painting the trees above the water line, bring it under the waterline at the same time. Always ask yourself "Where else can I use this color" so that you don't have to remix it, and you create color harmony through the whole composition.

2. Make all your strokes on the water’s surface in horizontal strokes

and all your strokes in above the waterline vertical. THis creates a texture difference between the water and the subject. It helps to further the illusion of depth in the painting.

3. Make the surface of the water less defined and blended compared to the main subject. As a final touch, break up the water reflection with a fan brush or a sky-colored pastel to resemble the wind disturbing the surface. This furthers the illusion as well.

4. Last, make sure that the warmer & darker colors are toward the front of the composition and the cooler and lighter colors are toward the back. I played this up by putting a warm red/violet in the water in the foreground to try to bring it forward.

Now the hardest part of any painting is not to overwork it. Try to avoid fussing over details. One thing I like about teaching and painting is that I really don't have time to overwork a painting. Between demonstrating and helping people individually, I barely have an hour to paint. This keeps me on my toes.

Sometimes you need less time instead of more time. This is hard for beginners as most think that the more time you spend on a painting, the better it will get. This isn't true, and you will find that the more time you spend, the more overworked it looks, and the less "fresh" the composition is.

Try to periodically walk away from the painting, at least ten feet or so, and look at it from a distance. Ask yourself; "Am I adding to this composition or taking away from it?"

Sometimes a bad painting will always just be a bad painting. Try to learn the spiritual lesson in the painting. Where did I go wrong, what could I do differently next time. When you sum it up objectively like that, instead of that inner critic saying "this sucks, I suck, I should never have thought I could do this in the first place, it's too hard for me!" You give yourself a fighting chance to improve your work and avoid the same pitfalls next time.

While I'm not crazy about the painting I made of the scene, there are some things that work and some things I could do better next time. I show this painting because its a learning experience for me as well. I don't always make great paintings. Sometimes I make mediocre paintings and just don't show them. This is one I would consider to be mediocre.

In critique, I would say what works about it is the water reflection. It is really beautiful and the mark-making is fresh and abstract. I also like the Spanish Moss. What doesn't work and I would do differently is I don't like the central placement of the tree & it's reflection, and I don't like the way I rendered the distant tree line (too even and repetitive).

Next time I am faced with a similar scene (which will probably be the very next plein air class) I'll handle it a little differently. I always try to sum up each painting and take stock of where my skills are improving and where I need to focus my attention on improving. This kind of honest self-appraisal keeps you growing as an artist instead of being blocked and stymied by perfectionism and criticism.

The best way to paint water reflection is to go out and paint water reflections. Don't be intimidated, or think it's too hard. Dive in, make mistakes, sum it up and try again. We artists are visual learners. You really can't learn from reading about it, or watching a video, you just have to do it with your own brain, eyes, and hands.

I look forward to seeing what you do!

Happy Painting!

1,935 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page