I’ve been painting a lot of water and reflections in my watercolor painting this summer. Water is appealing! It can add interest, mood, and depth to a landscape. I love to paint water! However, reflections can cause all kinds of problems, and be quite challenging to paint.
SO MANY VARIATIONS!
Since there are numerous variations in the appearance of water, each painted differently, it makes sense that there are also differences in the way reflections are painted. Your scene could show still water, a slow moving river, a rushing stream with whitewater, a windswept lake, water riffled by a soft breeze, a shallow puddle, rolling ocean swells, or crashing waves. The techniques used to paint reflections are determined by the characteristics of the water itself.
But before painting a water scene, it’s important to understand what causes the changes in water’s appearance. As an artist, you mustn’t merely paint a blue wash with a few straight lines for ‘ripples’ and expect this to look convincing as water. It won’t be convincing at all! Instead, take the time to slow down and to closely OBSERVE and study reflections. You might want to read Painting Begins With Looking And Seeing, 12/18/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, to learn more about critical observation skills.
WHAT COLOR IS THE WATER?
In general, the color of water is determined by the color of the sky. A clear, blue sky does produce a blue sky reflection, whereas an overcast, stormy day could create a gray water surface. A yellow dawn or an orange sunset would similarly affect the color of the water that you see.
When painting water, keep in mind that it would usually look better as a GRADUATED WASH, darker at the front and getting lighter as it recedes into the background. A graduated wash is preferable to a flat wash of a single unchanging value. The water in the foreground tends to be shallower, allowing a viewer to see more of the lake or river bottom. In contrast, when water is seen from a distance, the viewing angle is more acute, meaning that more of the light sky is reflected.
Yet, water is not usually a perfect reflecting surface (like a mirror). Water tends to be translucent, like frosted glass, allowing light to pass through it, but diffusing the light at the same time. That is, water is a translucent liquid with a reflective surface. The water, if you eliminate the reflection, has its own ‘local’ color, which will depend on minerals, silt, or microscopic life suspended in the water as well as the depth of the water and whether you can see the bottom. So, while water will reflect sky color, it also has a color of its own.
Usually there are objects in or surrounding a body of water. These will be reflected on the water’s surface. There may be a shore with trees and other vegetation, or buildings, bridges, boats, rocks, or fences and posts. We might see reflected light on the water’s surface or even another object, for example, the red of a nearby buoy reflected in the water, or the water’s color reflected up onto the hull of a boat.
Since the surface of the water is seldom perfectly calm, but may be disturbed by a faint breeze or the moving of the water, the reflection almost always is blurred. And when the water surface is disturbed by a stronger wind, lighter rippled areas appear that reflect the sky, not the shoreline objects.
YOUR PAINTING OF WATER NEEDS TO VARY AS THE WATER VARIES.
There seems to be so much diversity! Since different variations of water create so many types of reflections, how do we keep these straight? And, how in the world do we know how to go about painting each?
Make your painting plan on a case by case basis. First, CLOSELY OBSERVE your water scene and note important details.
Second, review Zoltan Szabo’s 10 RULES on the PHYSICAL LAWS of reflection. Understand, then memorize these important rules and you will know exactly how reflections work. There are no shortcuts here if you want your reflections to be convincing!
RULE ONE: Any given point on an object must reflect DIRECTLY BELOW itself. Further, the distance from the bottom of the object to the top of the reflection is exactly equal to the height of the actual object, even if part of the object is not visible in the reflection.
RULE TWO: An object tilting TOWARD you will foreshorten, and its reflection will seem LONGER than the tilted object.
RULE THREE: When an object tilts AWAY from you, its reflection appears SHORTER than the object itself.
RULE FOUR: The reflection of an object appears the way you would see it if your EYES were ON THE SURFACE OF THE WATER, where the reflection is located. Since your vantage point is always higher than the reflection on the water’s surface, you may be able to see inside a boat on the water while the reflection will show only the outside of the boat’s hull.
RULE FIVE: The TONAL VALUE of a reflection is controlled by the DEEPEST VALUE of the water’s own LOCAL COLOR. NO reflection can be darker than the water’s own local color. Therefore, you will have to consider BOTH the sky color AND the water’s local color when painting a reflection. This can be extremely confusing! If, for example, the color of the water’s surface is a combination of shallow bottom (dark local color) and the sky’s reflection, green weeds may be close in value to the water’s surface. If these weeds block the sky reflection, the muddy bottom dominates the color and value of the weed’s reflection – the reflection is similar to the muddy bottom color. What this means is – if the value of the reflecting object is LIGHTER than the deepest value of the water’s own LOCAL color, the reflection will be DARKER than the object.
If an object has the SAME value as the LOCAL color of the water, its reflection will also have the SAME value.
Whereas, if the object is DARKER than the water’s own LOCAL color, it still reflects the LIGHTER local color. A DARK tree’s reflection in a shallow light-colored stream (i.e. the LOCAL color is light) will be LIGHTER than the dark tree itself.
RULE SIX: The color of a reflection is influenced by the LOCAL COLOR of the water. For example, a red boat would reflect the red hull plus the water’s own LOCAL COLOR – if brown, then reflection would appear reddish-brown. Or a reflection of a white boat in blue-gray water would look similar to the LOCAL COLOR – white plus the blue-gray of the water. A blue boat in the same blue-gray water would appear a darker blue – a combination of the blue of the boat with the color of the water (blue-gray).
RULE SEVEN: (Sounds scary, but it isn’t really.) The angle of incidence and the angle of reflection are always the same. That is, on STILL water, when you look at a reflection you’re looking at the ‘point of reflection’. Your line of view creates an angle with the water’s surface, and this is the angle of incidence. A reciprocal angle is formed between the object being reflected and the water’s surface. These two angles are the same size. See below.
Chart from Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques, p.25.
Why does this matter? Because, when there are WAVES, things change – the angle of reflection bounces off a TILTED surface rather than a flat mirror-like surface, AND then the ANGLE OF REFLECTION changes. In simple terms, when there are waves, the eye sees a DIFFERENT IMAGE on each side of the wave. Waves have a near and far side! A wave’s NEAR side often reflects the sky (and also shows some local color) while the wave’s FAR side (which appears narrower because of its tilt!) reflects what is on the other side of the wave (what is behind the wave).
RULE EIGHT: Reflections are not in the water but ON ITS SURFACE. A reflection wiggles following the movement of the water. Also, the reflection of the far object in the nearby waves will start to SKIP just before it stops reflecting on the waves’ NEAR SIDES. Reflections on the FAR SIDE of the waves will reflect a little longer/farther, until the whole wave reflects only the sky.
RULE NINE: If a gentle wind blows from the side making tiny riffled waves, you may see BREEZE PATTERNS interrupting otherwise calm reflections. They are dominated by the color and value of the sky.
RULE TEN: When a very light subject reflects against a very dark background in GENTLY moving water, its reflection may appear much LONGER than the length of the object itself. The more the contrast (between light and dark), the farther the reflection stretches. If the water is NOT MOVING, however, the reflecting bright/light object will be the SAME size as it appears in reality.
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I love your article. I’ve been thinking a lot about elongated reflections. I don’t think you are right in rule 10 that the water has to be gently moving. We see the same effect on rainy roads when we see car headlights and traffic lights with elongated reflections.
Thanks for commenting, John.
You have made a very good point. Reflections of car headlights and traffic lights do often appear elongated. But is the puddle truly still? Perhaps it is, but the reason the reflection appears elongated may have something to do with the angle you (we) are viewing from. Might our eye be viewing
from below (in the case of a streetlight) and changing the shape of the reflection?
In any case, a reflection is rarely the exact same as the object being reflected, and often it can be for several reasons.
I personally find it difficult to look at each one of the ten rules in isolation.
If you’d like to read more about these ten rules (as formulated by Zoltan Szabo),
check out his book ‘Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques’, pgs. 20-29.
And please let me know what you think!