How to Paint Reflections in Water, Using Watercolor Paints

This watercolor painting tutorial shows you three ways to paint reflection in water. We've used the same picture for all three approaches so you can easily compare results. The aim is to learn different ways of painting water so that you can either vary the way you approach it or just choose the method you like best.

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Three Ways to Paint Reflections in Water

How to Paint Reflections in Water

 Andy Walker

We’ve picked a picture of a windmill as the subject for this exercise because this is just that bit more interesting than a normal house, and there is the added complication of the sails with their angles to get right!

To complete the exercise you'll need the following:

  • A sheet of watercolor paper
  • Pencil (for drawing the windmill, or tracing it)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Watercolor brush
  • Water for rinsing your brush
  • Clean cloth or tissue for wiping your brush

Let's get started!

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Trace the Windmill Three Times

How to Paint Reflections in Water
Trace this outline of a windmill.

Andy Walker

Using a pencil, lightly draw an outline of a windmill (as shown above) onto your sheet of watercolor paper. Draw it three times in a row―because you're going to paint three different styles of reflections―then under the left-hand windmill only draw a reflection of the windmill.

Alternatively, print out and trace the outline of the windmills from this art worksheet or, if your computer printer has waterproof ink, print it on a sheet of watercolor paper.

Now let's select some colors...

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Colors for Painting the Windmill

Paint the Windmill
Paint the windmill the colors indicated.

Andy Walker 

Paint the windmills using the colors as shown, or select your own. Don't worry about doing anything fancy, this is just an exercise to show how things work. Each area is just filled in with a flat wash.

The colors we've used are:

  • Sky: cerulean blue
  • Foreground: cadmium yellow and cerulean blue
  • Bushes: cadmium yellow and ultramarine
  • Windmill sails: raw sienna
  • Windmill building: burnt sienna
  • Windmill door, windows, and top: burnt sienna and ultramarine

Now let's paint the first style of reflection...

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Paint the First Reflected Windmill and Leave it to Dry

Paint the first reflected windmill
Paint the first reflected windmill and leave it to dry.

 Andy Walker 

Using the same colors as you did for the windmill, paint the first reflected windmill―but not the sky around it. Leave it to dry completely before painting the water.

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Style 1: Painting a Simple Reflection in Water

Paint the water across the reflected windmill
Paint the water across the reflected windmill.

 Andy Walker 

Now you've got the first reflected windmill painted and it has dried, it is just a simple matter of painting the water surface. This is done by laying down a cerulean blue wash over the entire water area, going right over the reflected windmill itself as well are the reflected foreground and bushes.

This dulls the reflected windmill colors and makes them look as if they are in the water―just what you want to achieve.

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Style 2: Painting a Broken or Rippled Reflection in Water

Create a Broken or Rippled Reflection in the Water
Create a broken or rippled reflection in the water using short brush strokes.

 Andy Walker 

Using your same colors as before, but this time creating small horizontal strokes, paint in the reflection of the windmill and then the water. You may want to mark a few pencil dots where various parts of the windmill will be in the reflection, to act as guides.

Don’t bend your wrist as you paint these lines, or they will end up as curves rather than straight lines. Instead, hold the brush firmly and swing your whole hand gently from your elbow.

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Style 3: Painting a Wet-in-Wet Reflection in Water

Painting a Wet-in-Wet Reflection
Painting a wet-in-wet reflection.

 Andy Walker 

This technique is the least predictable but produces a very realistic result. We are going to work wet in wet, laying down the blue water first and then dropping in the windmill.

Have your paper lying flat for this technique. Lay down a wash of cerulean blue over the whole water area, and then wait for a little until this begins to dry. If you go in too soon with other colors they will spread to far and fade to nothing, and if you go in too late the paint may cause cauliflowers and back runs to form, or just not blend at all.

Our advice is to test it out by dropping in tiny amounts of 'windmill' paint and see what happens. If it spreads out just a bit, then that's the right time to drop in the rest of the picture. Just touch in the windmill and allow the wet-in-wet effect to do the rest. Risky, but effective!

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The Finished Result of the Three Techniques

The Three Techniques for Painting Reflections in Water
The three techniques for painting reflections in water.

 Andy Walker 

Now you've finished the third technique for painting reflections in water, you've got a sheet you can refer to whenever you want to paint a reflection. Pin it up on a noticeboard, or file it in your creativity journal.

About the Artist: Andy Walker has taught watercolor painting for a number of years, and over this time has tried out many different ways of teaching. Andy has found that the one method which seems to work the best is the step-by-step approach, and has compiled a watercolor course based on step-by-steps. This tutorial on painting reflections in water is one from his course and reprinted with permission.