A while back, a reader asked me to share some tips for painting water and the sun reflections at sunset. Like many, this new painter has been a bit intimidated by depicting reflected light on water.

©2019 Lori McNee, Last Light, 60×40, Oil on Canvas

Painting water is a fairly complex subject. With careful observation of Mother Nature, you will notice how water, is affected by its surroundings, reflections, depth, and clarity.

Painting rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans can be a challenging task. I hope the following tips will help you.

Understanding Water

Different Bodies of Water:

Make sure that you consider the differences between rivers, lakes, oceans, and puddles before you start to paint them.  A general understanding will help you recreate them with greater ease.

Shallow water generally ripples and moves its course over rocks and debris. This causes a complex pattern of broken reflections. Shallow ocean water is lighter, often turquoise in color.
  • Ripples combine the reflected colors from light and dark areas.
  • Use quick, energetic brushwork with side-to-side strokes of a thin brush.
  • Drag paint from dark reflected objects quickly into the light areas, clean the brush, then drag the paint from the light areas back into the dark.
  • Watch for the bright highlights from ripples in dark areas and small dark streaks appearing in light areas.
Deep water generally ebbs and flows more slowly with a smoother surface. This calmer water gently reflects its immediate surroundings and the color of the sky. Deep ocean water is generally very deep blackish blue.
  • Use broader brushwork with a larger flat brush
  • Slower strokes and elegant, softer edges

Under the water:

  • Shallow water is generally warmer in a tone that is affected by the rocks, sand, and algae underneath.
  • Lakes, rivers, and streams tend to be greener. This is caused by the sediment in the water which reflects more light.
  • A lake, river, or stream generally tends more toward green. Particles floating in the water reflect more light, creating an overall lighter tone.
  • The value of the blue-green decreases and gets darker as the water gets deeper.
mountain lake reflections

The Surface of the Water:

Lights are darker when reflected on the water.
  • The sky reflected on the surface of the water is generally a deeper version of the sky above.
  • Reflections of objects will be somewhat darker and dimmer than objects seen directly.
Darks are lighter when reflected on the water.
  • On the surface of clear water, shadow areas from objects next to the water tend to offer a window to under the surface – like wearing polarized sunglasses!
  • This is due to the object blocking the reflection of the sky.
©2023 Lori McNee, “Sunset on the Snake,” 24×30, oil on canvas

Water Becomes Less Reflective the Closer the Viewer Is:

Water is an imperfect reflector. The closer the water is to the viewer, the less it reflects an image of the earth and sky.
  • For example, calm water directly below the viewer reflects only weak images while the outlying water reflects almost as well as a mirror.
  • In murky water close to you, the overall color of the water itself is seen.
  • In clear water, the rocks and objects under the water are seen.
Water in the foreground is usually darker than more distant water.

One trick: Gradate the reflected images in the background from light, cool, and clear to the foreground to darker and more olive green. Keep in mind, the reflected sky in the water close to you tends to look darker, grayer, and more blue-violet than in far-away water.

Understanding the Shapes & Angles Reflected in the Water:

Many new painters paint the reflected image as an exact, mirrored image of the direct object. This distorts and the realistic landscape painting requires a more accurate representation of what your eyes actually see.

  • When viewing a scene of reflections in water, you are seeing the actual objects in the scene and their reflected images from two different viewing angles.
  • Of course, the reflected image you see in the water bounces off the surface of the water.
  • However, you see the reflected scene from an angle of view as far below the surface of the water as your eyes are above the water.
  • This means you see more of the undersides of reflected objects and may even see reflected objects that you cannot see at all when you look directly at the objects.

Lastly, many painters have difficulties when they try to paint very bright highlights such as reflections of the sunset on the water. Using pure white paint and expecting the painting to look realistic is a common mistake. Observation and practice will help you paint what you see and not what you know.

Try mixing a bit of yellow or orange into white for these intense highlights. If painted accurately, the painted sunlight can appear as bright as the original reflection of the actual sun.

Also, learning how to use complementary colors and warm against cool colors will dramatically improve the glow of your paintings. Observing any one of these principles will greatly improve your painting of reflections in the water. These tips can be used for oil, acrylic, watercolor, and all other painting mediums.


Learn more about ‘color’ and “value and tone’ because this will help your paintings become more believable:

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color in Your Art

A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Your Paintings

For more information about painting water reflections check out these great sources:

How to Paint Water for Oil, Acrylic & Watercolor Paintings

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