Water is one of the most popular painting, subjects, in water-colour yet it isn’t easy to get it right. One nice thing about water is that it has rhythm in its movements and will generally repeat the sequence so can catch that fleeting movements. Again.... and again.

Water like clouds is usually in motion so you must observe the way it looks at one instance and catch that time on paper.

One thing that dawned on me over the years is just how little you need to do when you are painting a river to make it look authentic whole areas can be just as flat wash. Let’s start with river. Imagine you’re standing on the banks of the Kelani river.

It’s a large river with a smooth flow in an around you’ll find boats of all shapes and sizes, people bathing and some washing clothes. Their size in relation to their surroundings gives a dramatic impression of the sheer scale and grandeur of the natural world.

Smooth water reflects the real life  

Always try to imagine the river as a soft mirror, reflecting everything above it. Apart from when it is muddy and in flood a river firstly reflects the colour of the sky, be it blue or stormy grey. Secondly, it reflects the things that surround it trees, huts, earth, and bridges all of course upside down.

I am a complete addict when it comes to painting water. When ever I pass, a river, a stream or even a pond I have this irresistible urge to stop and keep watching its movements, like any dog who can never pass a lamp post without having an investigation.

Reflections in water

Reflections in particular can be confusing and are often not well understood by many water colourists. Painting reflections in water takes practice and close observation, novice painters usually come unstuck because first they don’t understand the way reflections behave and second they are too timid in their approach. In the painting shown here, I have titled ‘floods’. Notice the reflections of the huts, trees and the distant houses. Even the calmest water is often disturbed by ripples and current that break up and distort reflections, thus creating lovely wavering patterns.

Here the reflections of the huts and the trees are rendered with dark limpid washes that give a life like impression of the smooth gently undulating surface of the water. I have emphasized the smooth glassiness of the water through the use of strong contrasts of light and dark tone.

Transparent glazes are applied are on top of the other to build up depth of tone and colour. Note how strong and well defined they are. Observe its reflections and how it colours reflected object. Also how the reflected light acts on the objects around it and the water coloured because of its dirt content either yellowish or brownish.

The dark reflections should be done as quickly and decisively as possible. On large stretches of water the surface it made very light where it’s farther away and dark in the foreground. This is because the horizon reflects the low, lighter part of the sky, but close to the shore the water picks up the darker colour from the sky above.

Stream water

Also, because we are looking down at it, the fore ground water transmits some of the colour of the bottom. With a large body of water some parts of the surface are smooth while others are ruffled by wind. Smooth water reflects the sky like a mirror but rough water picks up and relays the light from any directions, either darker or lighter than the sky depending on the prevailing conditions.

Water in a stream tumbles in some parts and flows in others. Watch its movements very carefully for quite a long time and then try and paint a generalization of this movement. Brushstrokes should follow the action of the water. Don’t put down every ripple because rushing water looks much better when it’s understated, and the absence of detail gives an impression of rapid movement.

Open sea water

Open sea and crushing surf are in constant motion, but it recurring movement, because of the agitated surface action, there is little if any reflection.

Open sea water has no colour of its own (it’s clear) but reflects the colour of the sky overhead. The rougher the water the darker the colour, but seas are usually darker than the sky above.

Remember that the ocean is flat so you should keep your brush strokes horizontal and not at various angles. Waves nearby appear greenish, as do curling rollers. The white spray, splash, caps and surf can be masked out at first to preserver the whiteness or can simply be left unpainted.

Main faults that crop up

What are the main faults that crop up?

There’s no doubt at all about what is the most common fault, it is over-elaboration, trying to put in every ripple and patch of light that momentarily catches your eye, most of which move around with the breeze any way. It’s even worse with flowing water.


One of the commonest faults in beginner’s paintings is that they contain to many irrelevant and distracting details that dilute or even destroy the message of the picture. The secret of painting water is to ‘edit out’ all the superfluous details and go for the bigger masses of tone and colour. You have probably heard the saying ‘Less is more’ and no where does this apply more readily than in the painting of water. Achieving the smooth, glassy look of water requires surprisingly little effort; often few sweeping strokes with abroad brush on damp paper are enough to convey the effect you need.

You may leave much of the paper bare and pats in just a few telling ripples and reflections, which are all that’s needed to spell ‘water’.