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How To Paint Water

I have put this page here to help anyone who would like to see how I paint.

I photographed this gallery riverscape painting in stages as I worked on it. It was a commission for a collector, part of my normal business. As a public service, it was published in Paint magazine, the journal of the SAA, in November 2005.

The pictures are a little raw, for which I apologise, but they are photographed in the course of my work, in studio conditions and they do tell the story.

How do you paint water and make it look wet?
Is there a long list of difficult techniques or can you latch onto simple principles to make convincing water? The answers are here......



You can use two basic principles to paint convincing water, and embellish from a whole sweetshop of watercolour goodies to add some zap and panache.

 1.“Blurred and Vertical equals Wet

Keep it wet, run the colour in vertically while its wet, keep the marks blurred and vertical. Mix plenty of colour. Use tubes.

2.“Let the Brush Speak”

Use the brush loosely, wet on dry for painting ripples. Use a well pointing sable brush. Practice on scrap paper. Mix loads of colour. Dash it from the point of the brush. Allow the marks to be those of the brush. Don’t try and make the shapes yourself by filling in drawings. Let the brush speak. 


Paint - Cadmium Lemon, Phthalo Green, Burnt Sienna, Neutral Tint, Phthalo Blue.

Paper - Choice of 3 - Hahnemuhle Rough, Hahnemuhle Tiepolo, Hahnemuhle Leonardo. Because of the large amount of water I stretch all my paper, even 400lb (800gsm)! Even blocks are not sufficiently stable. Phone 0788 799 8499 or email joe@joedowden.com for independent and free advice on all your paper problems.  

Brushes - Sable pointed round. No 6 or 8, and 10 or 12.

Use Rosemary and Co or SAA brushes.

Fig 1. (Landscape above image already masked).

Mask sparkles in water with short upright strokes from a colour shaper for the bobbing movement of sparkles. Note larger blob shaped marks in foreground for broken sun reflection. Horizontal scuff streaks and mud banks are masked on the distant river.


Fig 2.

Spatter masking fluid over sparkle area by tapping toothbrush down on hand to get many fine dots of masking fluid.


Fig 3.

You can also mask sparks of light with an Indian Ink nib.


Figs 4, 5 and 7 (Fig 4)

The landscape is painted and spattered and masking is removed and retouched.


Fig 5
Fig 7

Fig 10.

Mix a lot of black and blue - I used Phthalo blue and Neutral tint. Wet the entire water area and run the colour very strongly from bottom to top leaving light areas shown for a rough and ready upside down sky.


Fig 11.

Wet area newly covered in paint and add a little gum Arabic. Gum Arabic will slow movement of colour and stop it diffusing, allowing blurred shapes to sit alongside each other without blending too much. While wet, add Burnt Sienna, Phthalo green, Neutral tint and Cadmium lemon in vertical streaks letting colours blend a little in blurred and vertical marks. Notice sheen from gum Arabic shining in the camera flashlight - use sparingly or the sheen will not disappear when dry.


Fig 12.

Mix plenty of dark colour with Burnt sienna, Phthalo green and Neutral tint. Working wet on dry, dash colour on with large pointed round sable -  size 10 or 12. Brush loosely, pulling rather than pushing, and letting brush drag out long thin shapes for rippling reflections, smaller and horizontal in the distance, broader and more diagonal in the foreground for perspective. Ripples are warmer and lighter with Burnt sienna nearer the lights in the water.


Fig 13.

Use the ripple colour and dry brush it onto the paper for the dark scuff of fine ripples across the surface. Press the brush fibres against the rough surface or “tooth” of the paper letting colour pick up on the surface but not in the dimples, to get a speckled effect. Remove the masking fluid by rubbing it away.


Fig 14.

When dry, use damp stiff bristle brush to gently scrub colour away from some sparkles to give a bleached out dazzle effect  around these little flashes of light. Notice star shapes scrubbed around some of the biggest sparkles.


Fig 15.

Use a large a damp sable to lift vertical highlights - gently. Press the brush down on its heel and drag vertically. This produces reflected light from the sunlit woodland canopy above. Dab with dry tissue immediately. These reflections are barely perceptible but powerful mental triggers for wet looking water. Notice tiny amounts of orange touched in around largest sparkles. Touch in distant light streaks, (stage 1), with blue, and mud banks with brown.


Fig 16 Finished image.
(Click on image for larger version - will open in New Window)

The next article in this series moves up into the woodland area with light and shade, leaf and branch, the tangled labyrinth of woodland texture - woodland tangle untangled. 


Would you like to learn more?

Check my Events and Courses pages for details of courses and workshops.

If you have any painting or materials enquiries, feel free to
contact me.

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