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3 Rules for Painting Reflections
Watercolor Painting Lesson

by Jennifer Branch
YouTube Painting Video

3 Rules for Painting Reflections Watercolor Painting Lesson

Painting Lesson Level


Skill Building

Painting Water

Painting reflections in watercolor is easy with a few simple rules. I can't tell you how many students I've had who have confused reflection and shadow behavior, ruining their paintings, when just understanding a little bit more about reflections would have resulted in their masterpieces.

This 4 part reflections series guides you through the basics in this lesson, then progressively step up the reflection and the painting complication. We'll start with almost mirrored dinghies, move to a few ripples, then on to one of my most complicated painting tutorials yet with reflections on translucent water.

Your water paintings will be amazing at the end of this series!

Southwest Harbor Dinghies, the first painting tutorial in the Reflections series.

Painting reflections well is the quickest way to improve your water paintings. This is going to be fun!

When I look at a gorgeous lake scene, I don't think about Physics 101, but all the rules of painting reflections are basic physics. Think of the lake as a mirror. That's all it is before we start adding ripples. A dull, imperfect mirror, but still a simple mirror.

1. Reflections come directly toward the viewer.

Reflections don't skew with the sun like shadows. They always come directly towards you, the artist painting those reflections and the viewer looking at your paintings.

Painting water reflections

On a panorama where I rotated to get over 180 degrees (check out the railing on either side for the total angle), you can really see the full effect. No matter which way you turn your head, reflections come toward you.

If it helps, use a ruler to draw a 90 degree line from the bottom edge of the paper. That's really all you need to do.

On really large paintings, such as murals, this gets complicated since you have to plan for where the viewer (or the most viewers) are going to be standing. But as long as you stay under 12 feet wide, you're pretty safe just making all the reflections come towards you at the center of the painting.

Dogwoods Watercolor Painting Tutorials

Dogwoods Watercolor Painting Tutorial

2. Angle of Viewer determines Length of Reflection

Back to Physics 101! The water is a dulled mirror, but still a mirror. How long a reflection is is determined by the angle your eyes receive that light ray at. Remember light bounces off a surface at equal angles. So whether you are closer or farther, lower or higher than the reflected object ells you the length of the reflection.

So both the angle the object is reflected at and the length of the reflection are determined by YOUR position relative to the object.

How to Paint Reflections

3. Colors are Less Saturated
Whites are Dulled.

Venice Reflections

This lovely photo of Venice definitely needs to be on my To Paint list.
Notice how the reflected images are much duller than the actual objects.

overly saturated reflections

A really bad Photoshop effect I'm sure you've seen with bad photographs.
It really doesn't work when the reflections are brighter than the objects.

sailboat Reflections

Another on my To Paint list!
Notice how all the reflected whites are dulled, even though the impression is of bright reflections.

ailboat reflections blown whites

Ok, this bad Photoshop is very disturbing because we know it's wrong.
So don't have your paintings look physically impossible!

Usually lights are darker and darks are lighter.

So usually true is really most of the time. But every so often light reflects at a weird angle or you're painting a night scene and the rule just doesn't apply.

I see this rule broken the most in low light situations. Color saturation is always dulled but sometimes light can be odd and we see a darker reflection on the water or a lighter area than the actual object.

Don't trust a photo for breaking this rule. Photos can be deceptive, especially when you're dealing with processed data which is everythng but RAW. So if you see this and you're breaking this rule, always make notes on a quick sketch or paint on location.

Usually water has more horizontal lines closer together with distance.

So horizontal lines always do happen on the distant horizon, however sometimes there is enough wind or tides where it just never looks like that happens without a telescope. So this rule is definitely more for painters than scientists. We're painting what we see there versus what we know should be there.

How to Paint Reflections

Over the next few weeks, we'll explore some variations of painting water reflections. Here are the paintings in the order we'll paint them:

Reflected dinghies watercolor painting Goslings reflected watercolor painting

A few more ripples with these goslings.

Portofino boats reflections watercolor painting

These boats are deceptively difficult with the translucent water and the reflections.

I hope you're as excited about this series as I am! Thinking about these simple reflections rules has always transformed my students' paintings immediately. I'm excited to share them with everyone!

Watercolor reflections painting tutorial

Watercolor Painting Reflections
Southwest Harbor Dinghies

Watercolor reflections painting tutorial goslings

Watercolor Painting Reflections Painting Tutorial
Canadian Goslings

Watercolor reflections painting tutorial boats

Watercolor Painting Reflections Tutorial
Portofino Boats


Start sketching reflections!

The very best idea is to sketch a lake view (smooth mirror is easier) at different times of day from the same location. This way you can see how light changes colors and values, but not the shape of the reflection.

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Happy Painting! Jennifer Branch

3 Rules for Painting Reflections painting lesson by Jennifer Branch
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