How to Paint Reflections
Watercolor Painting Lesson

Make Painting Water Reflections Easy!

by Jennifer Branch
YouTube Painting Video

Painting reflections in watercolor is easy with a few basic guidelines. This reflections lesson and 3 watercolor painting tutorials guide you through each step of painting gorgeous water reflections!

How to Paint Reflections Watercolor Painting Lesson

Painting reflections in watercolor is easy. I can't tell you how many students I've had who have confused reflection and shadow behavior and ruined their paintings. It was so disappointing to see when just understanding a little bit more about reflections would have resulted in painting their masterpieces.

I want to make sure that never happens to you!

This 4 part reflections series guides you through the basics in this lesson on reflections, then progressively steps up the level of difficulty with 3 tutorials centered around water reflections.

We'll start with an easy painting with mirrored dinghies. The next painting tutorial will add some ripples. And in the final painting tutorial we'll be balancing waves, boat reflections and 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.

Canadian Goslings, with a few ripples

 Portofino boat reflections>
<p class=Portofino Boats, the final painting tutorial in the Reflections series.

Painting reflections well is the quickest way to improve your water paintings and is easier than you think!

Painting Lesson Level


Skill Building

Painting Water

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.

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2. Angle of Viewer determines Length of Reflection

Back to Physics 101!

Water is a dulled mirror, but still water is a reflecting 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 tells 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

So if you take a photo standing up, then sit down to sketch, your angle to the object and the water will change. This becomes a problem if you then go home and finish your painting using your photo, you're going to have some problems!

If you always remember the length of the reflection you see is determined by where you are standing relative to the object, it becomes simple.

3. Colors are Less Saturated
Whites are Dulled.

So think of water as a cloudy mirror. Any lights or colors reflected will be duller, even on the crispest summer day where you can see the water forever.

When we look at the scene, we think how that gorgeous reflection just glows, so we paint it very bright. The colors on the water are so bright, after all. We need to saturate the reflection like crazy!

And it just looks weird.

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.

boat 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!

No matter how bright a water image appears, really watch yourself before you paint it as bright as it seems in your head. I'm not saying a reflection couldn't be brighter than the object. I am saying I haven't seen it when I really examined what I was looking at.

So be very careful to paint the values and saturation you actually see. Otherwise it will just look unnatural.

Usually lights are darker and darks are lighter.

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 if your're breaking this rule. Photos can be deceptive, especially when you're dealing with processed data which is everythng but RAW. So if you see a reflection that's lighter than the object reflected and you know you have to paint that effect, 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 3 variations of painting water 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

I think some of the biggest stumbling blocks to painting paintings you're really happy with are simple technical ones. These blocks get in our way because we're simply in the habit of painting inaccurately.

Painting reflections correctly is as easy a mental shift as realizing all skies aren't blue and all trees aren't lollipops with green leaves with brown trunks. These habits are ingrained in kindergarten and useful there. Later on, they're so frustrating because we can't paint what we see accurately.

Watercolor painting is difficult. It's one of those things that's easy when you don't know how and becomes more complicated the more you learn. That's a lot of the fun of watercolor!

However, most of the technical parts of watercolor are very simple, like painting reflections. And whether you want to become a master artist or simply capture your vacations in a sketchbook, you can gradually develop those skills.

It's so much better if we save our painting energy for capturing that light perfectly or showing those evanescent ripples on the boat hull than worrying about which direction the boat reflection goes in. Accurate reflections are easy!


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.

Related Art Lessons

Happy Painting! Jennifer Branch

How to Paint Reflections painting lesson by Jennifer Branch
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