Painting Blog

Improve Your Painting: 5 Key Tips for Painting Water in Acrylics

Have you ever tried painting a peaceful scene of calm lake reflections only to give up halfway through because it wasn’t working out at all?

Now there's no need to give up. Here are some helpful tips and tricks for painting water with acrylic paints.

Water Reflection with paint"Speaking Softly" via Craftsy member kolorama1662292

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In my experience, painting water in a landscape with acrylics is one of the most difficult things to render realistically. So many aspiring artists struggle with water because it is versatile and ever-changing. In order to paint something realistically, you must first study it and understand it in every aspect. From fast rushing streams to calm, reflective ponds, here are some tips to get you started painting water in stunning likeness!

Tip #1: For calm water, follow the value rule for reflection.

Painting calm, reflective water can be quite difficult due to the complexities involved with reflections and values. Generally, the values of an object being reflected in the water are more muted than on the actual object itself. For instance, if you are painting a reflection of a dark tree trunk, the reflection of the dark part of the trunk will be lighter than it is on the actual tree, and vice versa for the tree’s highlights. Of course like anything else, there are exceptions to this rule in nature. But if you are painting without a reference, I suggest sticking to the general rule, as it will be your best guide.

Lake scene water reflections"Lake Scene" via the Craftsy class Water Views: Acrylic Landscapes

Tip #2: Try glazing to lighten up calm water.

One technique that I have used on multiple occasions is glazing. To begin, I paint the reflection almost the same color as the actual object. Once it is dry, I use some acrylic glazing liquid and a small amount of white paint and glaze this mixture smoothly over the reflections. It will lighten up your body of water, giving it a realistic look.

Tip #3: Running water runs white.

Where there is movement in the water, there are no reflections.

Whether the movement is from the current in the water or it is from wind moving the water, it does not matter, the effect is the same or quite similar. Moving and running water tends to be white such as a waterfall, white-water rapids, ocean waves, etc. Sometimes a water scene can have a mixture of both moving and calm water, which calls for some reflections and also some energetic and varied strokes to show movement and force. Be bold with your strokes and add energy to your painting with movement in the water. Ripples are an exception to the rule and usually just distort the reflection in the water, but I suggest studying some photos of water ripples before jumping straight onto the canvas.

Waterfall painted with acrylics

Tip #4: Pay attention to the water's surroundings.

A waterline and shore are almost essential when painting a body of water with a visible shoreline or piece of land. Waterlines, where the water meets the shore, are light in value and are made up of neutral, earthy colors. It usually does not span the entire shore: It is mostly a broken line with many variations of thick and thin lines mimicking nature.

Depending on what kind of body of water you are painting will depend on whether or not you add a shore or some kind of land element such as a beach. Most lakes have a small shore painted above the waterline. Painting in a piece of land or shore gives you a chance to add in other elements, such as small boats or wildflowers or even rocks, to give your water scenes even more depth and take them to the next level. Adding a few rocks to your water scenes will also help to create a more realistic rendering.

Tip #5: Use a reference photo.

It is best to paint from life or from a photo reference when painting something as versatile as water. The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to situations where water is present and this is why it is quite challenging to paint it accurately from your mind without some kind of reference.

Learn How to Paint Lovely Lakeside Scenes

water views craftsy class

Enjoy step-by-step instruction from artist Bennett Vadnais — without ever leaving your home!Enroll Now »


mihi hansen

Im really inspired by this now I can get back on track.

Judy Ponichtera

Where were you 44 years ago?

Judy Ponichtera

Sorry, my smiley face wasn’t shown at the end of my sentence. I was trying to be cute.

Frances M Kearns

I will try this out & see how I do.

Thank You for the info.


Just the information I was looking for and never found until now. Thank you so much. I have done a painting of a small stream and of course background sky etc. there is an old stone bridge across the stream and various rock formations. I wasn’t sure whether I could paint some running water around the centre over rocks while at the banks of the stream where it’s calmer, I have included some reflections for the other rocks.


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