If you’re looking to paint water, then you can’t ask for a better medium than watercolors. Watercolor paint perfectly captures the essence of water itself, with a translucency and versatility that lends itself well to painting seascapes, waterfalls, and other reflective surfaces. And since water is a regular feature of watercolor landscapes, it helps to hone in on the specific techniques that you need to know to paint watercolor water—particularly the different ways that you can use watercolors to capture movement and light. So, how do you make watercolor water? Here’s how to get started.

watercolor oceans
Watercolor seascapes two ways, painted by Skillshare student Annapoorani Krishnan.

Artistic Properties of Water

Water is a unique subject to paint, and for many reasons. Some of the things that you will have to account for when painting it include:

  • The different looks of shallow water versus deep water
  • Light and reflectivity
  • The water’s color 
  • Elements within the water (debris, rocks, and plant life can all disrupt the surface and how light reflects on it)
  • Motion (waves or ripples) versus lack thereof (still water)

All of this can seem difficult, but once you get the hang of how to paint with watercolors, you should start to see how various best practices apply to painting watercolor water. Add to those some essential features of painting water in general, and you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning bodies of water in your art.

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How to Paint Watercolor Water

Ready to start painting watercolor water? The best way to learn is to do, so follow these steps from artist Vanessa Lesniak’s beginner watercolor course to refine your skills and familiarize yourself with painting water in landscapes.

Gather Your Supplies

watercolor palette
The basics that you will need to paint your watercolor water.

You won’t need any special supplies for your water painting, but you will need a few essentials.

  • Watercolor paint: A basic palette of pan watercolors will do, though you could also use tube watercolors if you prefer. Most important will be ensuring that you have the right colors, which for these purposes are mostly blues and greens.
  • Brushes: You’ll want to have an assortment of watercolor brushes available—ideally two flat brushes and two round brushes of varying sizes.
  • White gel pen: This will be used to paint sparkles in the water where light hits the surface.
  • Watercolor paper: Use whatever type you prefer, so long as it’s graded for watercolor (Lesniak uses 100% cotton cold press paper).

You’ll also need a jar of clean water and a paper towel for wiping excess paint off of your brushes.

Painting Water with Soft Waves

Skillshare instructor Vanessa Lesniak shows how to add calm waves to an ocean painting. 

To paint an ocean with soft waves, start by using a flat brush to lightly wash your entire piece of paper with a thin layer of water. This wet-on-wet technique produces a more ethereal blend as opposed to the sharper lines you get when you paint with watercolors wet-on-dry.

You’ll be layering colors, so start with an even layer of your lightest blue that covers the whole paper. The darkest saturation will always be at the bottom, so start there when adding new layers in darker colors. And because you want a gradual gradation, layer in thin coats instead of trying to go as dark as possible right away. With every layer, stay a little further away from the top of the paper to achieve an ombre effect.

To add waves, start at the bottom and use a round brush to make curvatures at the points where you see the darkest streaks of color. Add fewer waves for calm water, and more waves for rougher water.

Painting Water with Light and Shadow

watercolor water
Figure out the direction of your light source before you begin. In this example, Lesniak has it coming straight through the middle.

Light and shadow occur when the sun hits the water’s surface. Decide where that sun is hitting, and if you’re painting water as part of a larger watercolor landscape, make sure that the direction of light is consistent throughout.

Cover your paper with a thin sheen of water, then follow the steps from the previous section for creating a gradation of color, but only do it on either side of where your light source will hit. Keep the widest empty space at the top, and narrow it as it travels down the page.

Use a small round brush to add strokes to your gradient, representing waves. Where the color is darkest at the bottom, add tiny, random brush strokes across the empty space in the middle. Continue moving up the paper, gracefully and subtly dragging color into the empty space as you go. You want to maintain emptiness in most of this space, but with enough strokes into the center to signify differentiations in light and shadow.

Painting Still Water

blue watercolor
This is the simplest of the techniques, but also produces some of the most beautiful results.

Apply a wet sheen, then add your darkest color to the bottom and drag the color up to achieve a graduated wash. You can keep it all pretty dark, like in the example image, or you can lighten it up more overtly as you reach the top of the paper. Keep adding paint as needed, but maintain a light touch with each layer so you don’t oversaturate a color where you don’t intend to.

When the whole page is completed, it’s time to add shadow. You’ll do this by painting a darker gradient on either side, leaving the middle intact. Blend it well to minimize any sharp lines and create a smooth finish.

Painting Sparkling Water

purple watercolor
A white gel pen is all you need to add sparkle to a seascape.

For this look, you’ll want to start wet-on-wet and then apply a dark background with only slight variations in shade (the effect will also look on a single lighter layer, but the sparkles won’t be as vivid). Use layers to build up your color rather than starting with dark paint and working in lighter shades as you move up the paper, and keep layering until you get a finished look you like.

Next add waves, using random brush strokes and occasionally lifting your brush off the paper. Let your paper dry completely once you’re satisfied with the wash.

Now it’s time to add on your sparkles, which is where a white gel pen comes in handy. First add thin broken lines throughout the piece to show cresting waves. Then add tiny circles with a cross in the middle wherever you see fit—these are your sparkles. It’s easier to add on more sparkle than take it away, so keep that in mind as you go and take a step back occasionally to see how it’s all coming together.

Quick Tips for Painting Water with Watercolors

Some additional words of wisdom as you start to practice these techniques:

  • Use your flat brushes for broad strokes and your round brushes for fine lines.
  • The shallower the water, the lighter the colors will be.
  • When it’s reflecting on water, light is darker than it is in the sky. So if your water is part of a larger scene, go slightly darker with your palette than you do elsewhere.

What will you create? Start experimenting with painting watercolor water and discover what makes this medium so special to work with. 

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Written By

Laura Mueller

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