Watercolor Tutorial for Beginners: How to Paint Water

May 10, 2023

Often, the allure of watercolor landscapes has to do with light or water - or both combined. We're naturally attracted to the beauty of lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. Waterfalls take our breath away. Waves lull us into a relaxation. Rapids exhilarate and awaken us.


So, it is natural that we gravitate toward painting the water as watercolor artists. It's a dynamic and deeply satisfying subject, so I thought this week I would offer a step-by-step tutorial about how to paint the water

Watercolor Techniques to Improve Your Paintings of Water

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What Materials Do I Need to Paint Water?


As always, I use Saunders Waterford, 140 lb., cold pressed watercolor paper


I use Daniel Smith watercolor paints. The colors I on my palette are:

  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Rose Madder Permanent
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Cobalt Teal Blue
  • Opera Pink
  • Quinacridone Gold
  • Raw Sienna
  • Raw Umber
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Lavender
  • Cadmium Red
  • Payne's Gray
  • Cobalt Turquoise

While I encourage you to use quality paints, know that there are many more important factors when painting a watercolor scene. Don't get too caught up on whether you have the right brand or the exact same colors on your palette. You can even paint a beautiful watercolor with just a few colors. The bolded colors are the ones I use in today's painting. 


You'll see me use 3 different brushes in this painting:

  • Large mop brush
  • Medium round brush
  • Smaller synthetic brush 

If you're familiar with my watercolor tutorials, you'll notice that I use these same 3 brushes in most of my watercolor scenes. Whether I'm painting a stone bridge, a cityscape, sheep grazing a meadow, or a nocturne, I typically use these same three brushes.  

What Color Should I Paint Water?

Since we were kids, there is one color that we reach for when we need to color a lake, a river, or even a puddle. Instinctively, we think of water as blue. However, the reality is more complex. Water is reflective, so its color is influenced by the light, the colors around it, and colors of sediment, plants, or wildlife underneath it. The color of water varies depending on the time of day, the clouds in the sky, and the movement of the water. 

A major job we have as artists is to observe, to notice, and resist the urge to fill in gaps with the colors and shapes that we assume are in our scene. Take a look at some photographs of water and note what colors you see that you perhaps wouldn't have assumed you would see. 

 Step-by-Step Instructions to Paint Water with Watercolor 

Now that you have your supplies ready and have thought a little bit about color, you are ready to paint your watercolor water scene! Let's go slow and cover every step I took to create this watercolor painting.

 What is the focal point of this painting?

What I gravitated to in this reference photo were the rippling waves. I thought the movement and light was intriguing, and it inspired me to paint this watercolor. Since the magic of the waves will come later when I start painting, I kept the drawing simple, just placing the boat where I wanted it, drawing the horizon line, and drawing a faint line where the lightest part of that reflection is going to be.

This painting presented a special challenge for me. I couldn't go about it the way that I usually do (painting my sky and all the lightest values in the same wash) because we have the light area of the water and the lightest area of the boat right up against each other. We need a hard edge to show the difference between the two. 

So what I am going to do first is tone those areas of my painting that I want to be even lighter than the water. Then I am going to let the paper dry and then we'll go back in and paint the sky and the rest of the water. 

Starting with the Brightest Part of the Reflection: Raw Sienna, Rose Madder Permanent

The first thing I'm going to do is use my medium round brush to lay down some Raw Sienna on this line that marked where the lightest part of the reflection is. Then I am going to add some Rose Madder Permanent and soften the edges with water. Before I go any further, I am going to let this dry. 

 Painting Water with Watercolor: First Wash

Here's a quick summary of my first wash.

1. Wet down the back and front of your paper, avoiding the color you just laid down in your first step. 

2. Paint the sky (Cerulean, Cobalt Blue, Raw Sienna, Rose Madder Permanant). Paint right up to the boat, avoiding the places where there are highlights on the boat. 

3. Extend the color into the water, avoiding the color you've already laid down, and mixing up your color a bit as you go (I added more Cerulean). 

4. Paint the boat, being careful to avoid the areas you want to keep light. 

5. Mix a subtle green (Cobalt Turquoise and Raw Sienna) for top parts of the boat, blending it with the blue you already laid down.

6. Add some cerulean to the mixture and negatively paint the rest of the water, around the light. 

7. As you get closer to the bottom of the page, increase the value so it leads your eye up into the scene (I added some Lavender, Cerulean, and a touch of Raw Sienna, and Rose Madder Permanent). You're going for is a deeper, richer blue. Toward the very bottom, I added some Ultramarine Blue. 


 A Few Notes on Painting Watercolor Waves

Let's talk for a moment about waves. 

The soft ripples that you see in this first wash should be your goal in your wet-into-wet wash. This is the time to lay those down - not in later stages. 

Also, the ripples of your waves should be smaller and closer together the nearer are to the horizon line. Notice this even now, in my first wash. The lines of the waves are closer together the closer they are to the boat. 

Also, remember that the first wash will fade, so don't be afraid of strong values. They look really dark right now, but they will not be that way when you're finished. 


 Painting Water in Watercolor: Middle Value

Now that we've laid the lightest values of the scene, we're ready to add in the large, connected shape and those dark values that will make your lightest values pop. 

1. Mix the color you would like for the hills in the background (I used Cerulean, Cobalt Turquoise Blue, and Lavender). Working from the wet edge of the shape, add value as you go down the page. Make sure you paint around that vote and make sure that the horizon line/bottom of the hill is as straight as you can get it. 

2. Optional step - take a damp brush and give part of the hill a really soft edge that kind of fades away. 

3. Mix some Cobalt Turquoise and Raw Umber (going for a deep blue) and ad this to the middle/bottom of the hills. Take this color right up to the boat. 

Notice how the painting is now starting to showcase that light!

4. Next, Mix what you have on your palette with some Cobalt Teal Blue, Cerulean, and some of what you have on your palette already. Use this blue on the tarp and the sides of the boat to bring out its essence.

5. Moving into the body of the boat, mix some Raw Sienna, Lavender, and Cerulean for a neutral gray. Cover the bottom of the boat, while painting around the highlights on the boat. 

6. Mix some Cobalt Turquoise and Cerulean into the gray mixture for a gray that is leaning cool. Starting at the bottom of the boat, you're going to add depth to the water, thickening the lines and adding value as you go down. QUICK TIP - Squint as you refer to your reference photo so you can better see the large connected shape. 

 Darks and Details - How to Paint Water in Watercolor

This is the stage where you start to see your watercolor painting come together. It's amazing to see how you go from something so light and abstract to something defined and complete. This is one thing I love about the watercolor painting process. 

1. Mix Neutral Tint and Raw Sienna for a darker color to define the bottom of the boat.

2. Switch to a smaller brush and focus on some of the details on the boat.

3. Add darks into the reflection that correspond with the darks of the boat. 

 90% Done? Stop, Step Back, and Assess

A watercolor tip I often give beginner watercolor artists is that when you feel like you're about 90% done, stop. You can walk away, get some distance from your painting, and then come back when later. Maybe a half an hour, an hour later. You can even wait until the next day. However long it is, come back and assess what your painting might need to feel complete and accomplish what you set out to create. 

When I came back to this painting, it was clear to me that I needed to push the darks a bit more to separate the boat from the background. So I did that. I also wanted to add some birds to add a sense of distance. 


Want to Take The Next Step in Your Watercolor Journey?

Along with my weekly videos and blogs, I offer several other opportunities for you to continue your watercolor learning:

1. Sign up for my free video tutorial about the 7 secrets of painting fresh, powerful watercolor paintings. 

2. Check out my course, Watercolor Essentials that offers in-depth instruction on the 5 essential watercolor skills that took my paintings from this to this: 

3. Join the waiting list (or sign up if it's open) for my membership, Watercolor Community, where you'll receive a new step-by-step watercolor tutorial every month, have the opportunity to connect with other watercolor artists around the world, and receive optional critiques of your paintings. 

4. Join me on an in-person retreat to France in the Spring of 2024! We'll learn to paint evocative light, explore beautiful landscapes, and enjoy the luxurious amenities of the Château de la Vigne. This could be a monumental step on your journey as a watercolor artist. Spots are limited, so sign up today!


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