How To Paint Water (A Step By Step Guide)


Water is an intriguing subject for painting, with its various states posing a challenge. In this article, I’ll provide a series of step-by-step instructions that anyone can follow, even if you’re unsure where to begin. This is the first of many painting tutorials you’ll find on this site.

Choosing a Reference Photo

For today’s painting, we will use a captivating reference photo found on Pinterest, originally posted on Flickr by a profile named Cuba Gallery. Unfortunately, the details of the actual photographer are unknown. However, feel free to use any reference photo you prefer. The process should remain relatively the same.

Selecting Colors and Brushes

Before we start, let’s decide on the colors we’ll need to achieve the desired result. In this case, I’ll be using Ultramarine Blue, Light Blue Permanent, Titanium White, and Light Green Permanent. Additionally, small square-headed brushes will work well for this painting, but feel free to use other brushes as needed.

Preparing the Wood Panel

For this particular painting, I’m using a wood panel. If you’re using wood as well, ensure proper preparation. If you’re unsure how to do this, refer to the page I wrote on “How To Use Acrylic Paint on Wood” (link here!). Admittedly, I didn’t follow my own advice on this occasion as I wanted to experiment with the process. Embrace an experimenter’s mindset and don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Step 1: Painting the Background

Begin by painting the basic areas of your painting. Create a simple gradient between the lighter and darker sections, such as the sky and the water. Starting with the largest shapes or areas of color, gradually work your way down to the smallest details. At this stage, a loose representation is perfectly fine, as you can always add more later.

Step 2: Adding the Horizon, Wave Shapes, and Sky Gradient

In this step, define the important areas of your painting. Darken the sky slightly and fill in a dark blue block for the water. Leave space for the sun and consider brightening the background before adding the waves. Ensure you paint the bright white glow for the sun and misty clouds on top of the waves. If you’ve properly prepared your wood panel, you can achieve the desired effect by lightly dry brushing diluted paint over the canvas. However, if you encounter difficulties, adapt your techniques accordingly.

Step 3: Painting the Sun and Clouds

Now it’s time to focus on adding the sun and clouds. If necessary, adjust the background brightness to achieve the desired effect. Using a small square-headed brush, paint the spots for the sun and clouds. On a canvas, you can alternate between the brush with paint and a dry brush to create fluffy clouds, but on wood, the technique may differ slightly.

Step 4: Defining the Darker and Lighter Areas of Water

In this step, we want to add more variations of light and dark blues, along with a hint of green, to define the darker and lighter areas of the water’s surface. Look for large shapes within each section and aim for a smooth transition between colors. Squinting at the reference photo can help blur some details and better identify the shades.

Step 5: Carving Out More Details

Continue building up the layers by defining more shapes in the water. Take a closer look at the next level down and gradually tighten up your painting. By breaking the water into smaller areas, you can create a variance in colors that reflects how light interacts with the waves. If possible, use a digital tool like Procreate to help identify areas that need improvement.

Step 6: Painting in Smaller Shapes

In this step, focus on smaller and smaller shapes, adding more depth and detail to the waves. Create folds, reflections, and depth one small shape at a time. If needed, smooth out the transitions between shades of blue. As we progress, mix and match canvas techniques as necessary.

Step 7: Adding Light Blue-Green Highlights

To give the water a brighter, light blue-green tint, concentrate on the lighter areas where the light creates a gentle glow. Look for shapes to fill with this color and ensure the shades match consistently. Be cautious when remixing colors to avoid discrepancies.

Step 8: Adding Reflective Highlights and Surface Bubbles

Now, it’s time to add the brightest reflective highlights to bring the painting to life. Before that, identify any areas that require darkening. If needed, touch up those spots to restore depth. Use a small brush with a light blue-tinted white mix to create the reflective parts of the waves. Incorporate small circles to add highlights to the edges of the clouds, and introduce subtle shadows if necessary.

Final Touches

At this point, the painting should be near completion. Make any minor adjustments to perfect the details, keeping in mind that trial and error is part of the artistic journey. Congratulations on completing your water painting! I would love to see your work, so feel free to reach out to me on Instagram.

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