Water! Water! Everywhere!

Water! Water! Everywhere!

If you consider that I’ve lived all of my life surrounded by water, you might think I would be able to master painting it. The truth is, I find painting water more challenging than painting people – it is sooo intimidating! The ironic thing is that water exists in 50% or more of my work! It’s important to me that I get it right, so, you can guess I’ve wanted to pull my hair out quite a few times and I’ve created a few new swear words!

Painting water is challenging for me because of its nature! There is no consistency when painting water as it comes in many forms and with each form there are major differences. Water has different properties and the same body of water can look different within seconds depending on how light or dark it is outside, how deep it is, the colours surrounding it and below it and other things that might impact the colour. Also water in general is moving! I could be painting calm water with reflections or a stormy sea with high waves! There are ponds, lakes and oceans and even puddles and each one of these forms comes with their own challenges. 

Reference photo for “Fleur de Lys Harbour”

When I painted “Fleur de Lys Harbour” using the reference photo above, there were a few things that I had to figure out so that it looked right.  In my reference photo you will notice that the water in general is still. When water is still, reflections are present and capturing reflections is often tricky. For this piece I began by painting how I thought the water and reflections should appear, but that does not always work. The problem here is that I try painting a vision from my head but in reality I needed to paint what I was actually seeing! And that is a key to painting realistic water!

First layer of reflections

In the progress photo above, you will notice that the water has a smooth appearance where the reflections are located by the stages and underneath the boats. As you can see, at this point in the painting it actually looked like my water was flowing uphill underneath the bridge. It took a while to figure out that the brush strokes I had used was the cause of this appearance. I placed a mirror under my painting to get a good look at the water and the reflections in order to paint it! It was’t a conventional artists technique I know, but hey, it worked! 

There was one other thing that wasn’t working for me regarding the water reflections in this painting. My first instinct was to paint the reflections of the white boats the same colour as the boats. But, I learned from a wonderful artist friend that the reflection of dark objects appear lighter in water and vice versa! As you can see from the finished painting below, I managed to change my brush strokes so that the water was flowing in the right direction and the reflections were more realistic. 

“Fleur de Lys Harbour” finished painting

Over time I think I am becoming more confident in my ability to capture water and I have to give credit where it is due! When I am stuck with a certain painting problem such as those mentioned above when dealing with water, I look to online tutorials and to other artists for help. I can certainly say I’ve learned a lot from other artists who have been selfless in teaching their tips and tricks of the trade. When it comes to my struggles with water, Jim Miles, a Newfoundland artist,  from the Burin Peninsula has been a tremendous help. I believe Jim is a wizard when it comes to water (although he is very modest about his skills). Since I was focusing on my particular struggles with water for this weeks blog, I thought it would be neat to invite Jim to share some of his secrets for painting water for anyone who might be interested in learning how to tackle some common water problems.  

Tips for Painting Seascapes

Water…waves…seascapes. All are wonderful subjects for paintings, all are lovely – and they probably cause more swearing from more artists than any other subject.

I’ve worked hard to improve my seascapes over the years, and while I’m certainly no master, I’m happy to share what I’ve picked up.

There tends to be a couple of common problems that beginning marine artists run into.

1) The waves don’t look the right shape.

2) The water looks solid, not “watery” and transparent.

3) I can’t get the color right.

Shape – like Landscapes (reference Jim Miles)

1) SHAPE. Most people tend to make their waves far too regular, usually neat little peaks marching across the canvas in regular rows. Remember, nature hates regularity….think of your wave scene as a landscape, a bunch of rolling hills. The farthest waves will be smaller, the closest ones will be bigger. They will be broadly similar in general shape, but remember, none of the will be identical. Like hills, there will be a lit side, and a sunny side…this will give your waves the depth and dimension just as it does a landscape.


Transparency/Colour- (reference Jim Miles)

2) LACK OF TRANSPARENCY. I don’t think there’s one of us painters out there that hasn’t painted an ocean made out of blue plaster at some point. You can’t paint a canvas blue, add some white streaks, and call it a seascape. Water is a clear medium, and a painted depiction of it needs to have a certain transparency  to it in order to look right to the viewers eye.

Here’s how I do it – it isn’t the only way, or the best way, but it works for me.

I lightly draw in the pattern of waves and textures I want with a pencil. Those pencil lines are then painted over with a dark blue, making whatever corrections are needed as I go. Don’t worry about a few stray pencil lines, they will disappear under the paint as we go. When the paint lines are dry, I paint in the deepest areas with a deep blue or deep green, depending on the color of the finished piece.

After the outline and shading is fully dry, I paint over all the water with a thin blue/green glaze. Don’t worry about making this a uniform color – a bit of difference is good. A little bluer here, a bit more green there, just makes it more realistic.

IMPORTANT. This transparent layer, and the ones to follow, MUST be fully dry before proceeding.

Once your blue/ green wash is dry, paint in your white wave crests, ripples, streaks of foam, etc. Don’t worry about color variety, plain white works fine at this stage.

Once the white is fully dry, paint another layer of thin blue/green over the scene. When dry, repaint the white bits – DON’T worry about exactly covering the previous white areas, paint over some, leave others. Redo the blue/green wash, redo the white areas…do this till there are 5 or more layers on your canvas. The white bits with the most layers of blueish glaze on them will be the least noticable, the white bits with fewer layers will be more noticeable, and the top white will stand out best.

These multilayers give you that hard to get transparent look. It’s not bad in acrylics, as a hairdryer can dry each layer in a couple of minutes….in oil it’s downright tedious. It’s worth it, thought…in the end you will have a scene that looks like water.

Reflect colour of surroundings (reference Jim Miles)

3) COLOR. Water is blue, right? Well, no. Water scenes can certainly be blue….or green, or orange, etc. It depends on the light that illuminates the painting. A clear blue sunny day, and your seascape is blue. Grey skies and windy, the sea is grey, too. Clear, very stormy day…the seas can be a deep, purpley blue that looks almost black.

A broad rule of thumb I use for some of my work is deep blue at the horizon, blending with some green as the sea gets nearer the viewer. I use a fair bit of Pthalo Blue, and both Hookers Green and Sap Green. I would suggest using as little black as possible…so easy to use too much.

Water reflects light, so remember to use this in your work. If you have a sun low in the sky, work in some yellow or orange in the water below the sun. If you are painting a bright red boat in the harbour, a little red will be reflected near the boats side.

There is a great deal more to painting seascapes/waterscenes, but I hope this short piece will be of some help to you.

Jim Miles



  1. Enjoyed reading about your painting!! Love it the water, boats!! Thanks for sharing!

    June 30, 2018 Reply
    1. Thanks so much Jean 🙂

      July 2, 2018 Reply
  2. Great post Margie! I agree! Water is really difficult to paint, but once you figure it out, it gets easier – well a little easier. One of my first paintings had the Caribbean Ocean in it. I must have been crazy!!! But I’ve learned a few things along the way too and even though I “know” how to paint water, it’s still very challenging! Thanks to Jim also for sharing his very detailed knowledge with us! Can’t wait to read your next post.

    Maggie Haren
    July 1, 2018 Reply
    1. Thanks Maggie! I think one day water and I will become great friends! Although I struggle I am getting the hang of it!

      July 2, 2018 Reply

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