I Just Want To Know The Rules… Of Reflections.

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.


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.

Wachusett Reservoir Sunset.jpg


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.

Floating Xmas Tree

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.

Stone Bridge Reflections.jpg

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.


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.

Swamp and Mt.

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).

The Dock.jpg

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.


In my next blog post, I plan to continue the investigation of reflections, and describe some techniques to use when painting various reflections in watercolor.

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Hold Your Horses!

As you know, many artists, including me, want to get on to their painting quickly. Unfortunately, jumping right into a painting without forethought often develops into rushing and inattentiveness to important details. It can be a disaster to encounter a problem with the arrangement of shapes, or discover something in your picture you want to change, while in the midst of painting. Don’t simply copy, without thinking, all the details you see before you while emphasizing them all equally! Instead, take the time to contemplate a plan before starting to paint! Rein in your excitement, for the moment, and harness your enthusiasm. As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. How?

Create thumbnails.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

Attention to your thumbnails will save you both time and creative energy. If performed with conscious attention and thought, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of your composition. Does your image work best in a horizontal or vertical format? Should you crop out part of your image to emphasize a terrific grouping of shapes? What will the focal point be? Where is the light coming from? Does the picture need more contrast to emphasize the center of interest? Maybe it would be better to eliminate some of the more distracting elements. What about rearranging some shapes to lead the viewer more easily into the picture?

Template-Summer Field

Recent reference photo.

Look for the BIG SHAPES and VALUES.

Thumbnail  sunny clouds.jpg

Thumbnail 1 – sunny sky, remove corner vegetation, larger tree?

Shapes are the building blocks of composition. To create a thumbnail, sketch the LARGE SHAPES first, forget about small details. Group masses of similar value shapes together. Sketch lightly at first. Identify the most important objects or parts of the scene. Notice how the smaller shapes relate to the large shapes. Try to think of possible changes in the arrangement and STRUCTURE of elements that might produce a stronger composition. You may want to rearrange some of the major shapes or change their size or profile.

Thumbnail animals

Thumbnail 2 – add animals, remove corner vegetation?


Refine your shapes, then start to add VALUES to your sketch. Squint to identify the darks, mediums, and lights. Each mass of shapes needs to be lighter or darker than what is next to it in order for it to appear different. Consider changing the value of an area if it improves value contrast and the composition. Stick to dark, medium, and light values in each sketch to keep it simple.

Thumbnail more sky

Thumbnail 3 – More sky, less field?

Add or rearrange to explore variations in value or even subject arrangement or EMPHASIS. If you do change values, however, realize that you have changed the light source and must also remember to check that any shadows are consistent with this new light source. Add darker lines and middle values.

Thumbnail best.jpg

Thumbnail 4 – enlarge tree, minimize/lighten left corner vegetation, darken right side trees, darken clouds behind center tree, keep fields/road light – values exaggerated!

Finish by shading in the darkest values and adjusting CONTRASTS between shapes. Remember, the greatest contrast in values (and sometimes the lightest value) is centered on the focal point.

PAINTING-Summer Field.jpg

Finished watercolor painting.

In my latest painting (shown here), I WISH I had sketched thumbnails BEFORE I painted! I know I should, but I don’t always do it. This time, I didn’t, and I struggled. I couldn’t figure out why the painting initially wasn’t working. The subject was good, but eventually I realized I had to increase the value contrasts – a lot. Nothing stood out until I lightened some areas and darkened others! So, I wrote this post and created these thumbnails after I had trouble with getting the values right while painting. I ‘shut the barn door after the horse was gone’! Maybe this article can help you realize how drawing quick thumbnails (before you paint) will help you work out possible problems ( with composition, subject, color, etc.) before you start painting. The time you spend creating thumbnails can save you some headaches.

To summarize,

With the knowledge learned from thumbnails, you can begin painting with much more confidence. It’ll be a cinch! You will have considered the main STRUCTURE, EMPHASIS, SHAPES, and CONTRASTS for the composition. You will have already worked out most of the possible issues and problems within your thumbnail sketches. You will have developed a ‘plan’ for your composition, since you understand that it is the strength of the composition NOT the subject matter that makes a painting effective. The plan may even include possible color choices. Don’t forget, however, when transferring your image to the watercolor paper, to refer back to your thumbnail, not necessarily your reference.  This would insure any changes made when creating your thumbnails are included when transferring the drawing onto paper. Save your reference for later, when you start to build up detail in the final painting.

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Let’s Get Shady!

Why are there such variations in the appearance of shade and shadows, even within a single picture? How, as artists, can we capture that variation with paint? Why do some shadows have hard edges and others appear soft? Why are some shadows darker than others? Read on…


We know that mastering light and shadow is key to successful watercolor painting. By using VALUE (light and dark) a painter can give an object shape, form, depth.  PATTERNS of light and shade are, in effect, what we are actually trying to capture in paint.

Light Source.

When beginning to paint, an artist needs to consider where the light is coming from, the LIGHT SOURCE. The way light hits an object affects how it is seen and how it will be painted. Are you painting a bright sunny day, a dark overcast day, or a gloomy interior, for example? Light affects mood, and will determine the types of shadows you need to paint. Beginning painters sometimes try to avoid painting shadows, but then wonder why their image looks flat and incomplete. Shadows create form – add shadows to a drawing of a circle and it becomes a rounded sphere. So, at the outset, analyze how and where the light strikes an object. (Keep in mind that there may even be more than one light source!)



Initially, shadows may look as if they are made up of only two values, light and dark. But look more carefully and you will see a much more complex reality.

Barn Interior

Shadow components.

Break down a shadow and you will find many components. The HIGHLIGHT is the area hit directly by the light source. There is often little or no detail visible here, as it is too bright. Paint a highlight with a very pale tone or leave the white of the paper.

The area of an object that is transitioning from the highlight to the darkest shadow area is called the HALFTONE. If the object is curved, as a sphere or rock, this transition of value is gradual, and would be painted with a soft edge.

The actual SHADOW (sometimes called a LOCAL or FORM shadow) will be in the area of the object that is hidden away from the light. It is generally the darkest area, receiving the least amount of light. Shadows are dark, but rarely black! To mix shadow color, you might mix the local color of the object with some transparent blue (sky light) and some of the local color’s complement.

Often, light can be reflected back into the shadow, illuminating it. This REFLECTED LIGHT bounces off a nearby surface and carries some of the color of that surface into the shadow. Reflected shadows would be lighter than the actual shadow, but never as bright as an area directly in the light. The amount of color reflected depends on the intensity of the light source as well as the character of the surface reflecting the light. Observe carefully how much reflected light you see in shadows and what colors are introduced there.

A CAST SHADOW is created by the object interrupting the light, and its shape relates to the shape of the object and the ANGLE of the light source. The cast shadow will follow the contour of what it falls on, for example, uneven ground. It will grow LIGHTER in value and softer-edged the farther it extends from the subject casting the shadow. The darker and harder-edged you paint cast shadows, the brighter the light will appear. Choose clear blue shadows for sunny days, whereas on overcast days, a cool gray or grayish purple would be a more appropriate choice for shadows. As the weather and quality of light in the sky changes, so do the color, value, and edge qualities of the cast shadows.

barn walshaw


Wet-in-wet is an ideal technique to introduce color into a still wet shadow. You might paint a base shadow wash in a lighter tone than your final desired value, then drop in additional colors, each successive color mixed to a somewhat drier consistency than the previous ones (to avoid over-wetting and creating pools of paint). Don’t overmix colors when you add them into a shadow, which would create a dull uniform gray that appears flat. You want to retain separate colors and variation of color within a shadow. Remember to use transparent colors in your shadows if your aim is to deepen and darken the shadow. On the other hand, bright opaque pigments, such as yellow ochre or raw umber, could lighten the shadow and suggest reflected light. You might also lift out patches of color to build lighter spots of dappled light, or reflected light.

Hard or soft?

Several factors affect the softness/hardness of shadow edges. We know the SOURCE of light changes the appearance of shadows. With a single bright light source, such as the sun, shadows will be strong and sharp. Diffuse light, on the other hand, such as through a window out of direct sunlight or on an overcast day, produces shadows less defined and with soft edges. In diffuse light, value contrasts will also be less strong.

Jamison's Ocean Light

So, sharp edges and details are found in well-lit areas, whereas soft or lost edges and ambiguity are located in the shadows. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to try to paint sharp, crisp details in darkened, poorly lit room. Instead, blur or soften details in shadow, even painting shadowed areas wet-in-wet on dampened paper with a passage of mingled colors. (Remember to dampen as evenly as possible, however, to avoid puddles or pools of water. Don’t flood the area with lots of water. Pre-wetting evenly encourages a soft blend of paint.) Leave your paper dry where you want to retain details, perhaps under bright lamp light.

Also, the DISTANCE FROM THE OBJECT casting the shadow to the shadow itself also has an effect on whether shadows are hard or soft edged. Where the shadow lies close to the object, such as plants in a flowerpot casting a shadow on the ground, the shadow will tend to be crisp and dark. A tree, farther away from the ground, will cast a lighter, softer shadow, since as the distance increases, more light is able to reach the shadow.

Try to apply what you just learned in this blog post about shadows. Take a look at this Kenny Harris painting (below) and see if you can analyze and make sense of the many and varied shadows.

Turquoise window-kenny-harris.com

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No Light Without Shadow!

\All painters want to know how to portray light in order to create atmospheric and dramatic effects. When an artist can emphasize light, an everyday scene can become far more exciting. Since light is represented in watercolor by the untouched paper, the light is already in the painting. The watercolor artist must preserve the white/light while painting mid-tones and shadows in order to accentuate the light. Only by painting the darks or shadows that surround the light can the light be made obvious.

Light on Hill


On a bright sunny day, very pale washes (or untouched white paper) suggest direct sunlight, for instance, while darker mixes of color indicate a more shadowed area. Be bold! Without darks, your lights will lack liveliness. Take a look at Paint Your Shadows Bold…And Transparent!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/29/dont-be-afraid-to-paint-your-shadows-dark/, my blog post from January 29, 2019, for more tips on painting shadows.

Value contrast (with lights close to and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest. On the other hand, if there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. If you tend to avoid painting dark colors, perhaps by adjusting your values you could create a picture with more impact.

In many ways, almost nothing is as important in a watercolor painting as how you handle lights and darks (value). (For more in depth information on value, read Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, a blog post from May 21, 2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/.) Protecting the light areas is crucial, so try to plan what areas of the picture you want to save as light before the painting begins. While you can mask, scrape, scrub, or use opaque white gouache to save/regain the white of the paper, it is often much more successful to preserve the variations in light from the outset with a painting plan of attack.

By seeing light and learning to capture it with paint, we can create the dramatic illusion of light in our work. But as Jean Haines says on page 43 in Colour And Light In Watercolour, “Before we can even begin to paint light, we have to be able to see it. Once you start to look for light it becomes an addiction. No painting feels right without it. It becomes a part of your being as an artist. You find yourself searching for ways to bring light into your work, and even more ways to paint it.” So, think about where light plays a part in each of your paintings, and observe what it is about the light on your subject that grabs your attention.

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Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.


Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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