Painting Water in Watercolor

Poppy Balser finds the fluidity of watercolor perfect for painting water in motion. Here she shares 7 of her best water-painting tips.

  1. As time allows, do several small warm-up studies of the color of the water and the shapes of the waves. Think of it as doing stretches before a race.
  2. Adopt a “less is more” approach to painting the surface of moving water. A surprisingly few brushstrokes can show the forms and motion of the water. Excessive marks can result in the painting looking static.
  3. A close look at an expanse of water will reveal subtle color shifts. Decide on an overall color, but be prepared to modify it here and there. Let areas of slightly different colors run together to create a convincing sense of water.
  4. Water will reflect what is going on in the sky above it. Create continuity in the scene by using the same colors to represent both sky and water.
  5. The sharpest contrast in your painting should be at the focal point, not necessarily where the sky meets the water, so beware the urge to paint the horizon line razor sharp, even though it may look that way to you.
  6. As waves churn up the water and stir tiny air bubbles into the foam, the water loses its tendency to reflect what is above and around it and shows more of what is mixed into it — seaweed, sand, and silt. The color of the water then changes based on the composition of the shore. Surf and foam on a pink sandy beach will be a different color from surf and foam on a gray sandy beach.
  7. The color of the water that we see is influenced by the angle of the sun relative to us. These two photos were taken at the same place at the same time of day — one almost directly facing toward the sun, the other away from the sun.
Into the Sun
Away from the sun
“Sparkling, Glistening, Dancing Water” (watercolor, 12 x 16 in.)
I go to the shore to paint when I need to shake the dust off, when I need inspiration for what to paint next. In this case I came home with a painting I will be happy to frame. Often as not, however, I come home with a series of “failed” sketches. Regardless of the outcome, I feel invigorated by the wide open view, the fresh air, the smell of the salt, and the sound of the waves. Drawing on my plein air experiences, I can use those sketches along with photos taken at the scene to make a painting in my studio, no longer bound by the constraints of time and tide and weather.
“Fish Plant Alley” (watercolor, 11 x 14 in.)
Available from artist
Plein air
This is a painting about reflections and the pattern of light and shadow. The bright white sides of the fish plants made strong reflections in the overhead light of an August afternoon. Note how the reflections of the sunlit buildings are darker than the structures themselves. Note also that the darkly shaded areas under the buildings allow us to see into the green water beneath the surface.

“Breezing Along” (watercolor, 15 x 22 in.)
Available from artist
We’d been racing against this boat, and even though she’s usually faster, this time we were neck and neck. It was an overcast day, and the water had a silvery gleam to it, yet we could see through the clear water right under the boat as she heeled over (tipped sideways) under the force of the wind. I indicated the distinct shapes of the waves kicked up as the vessel sliced through the water with energetic direct brushstrokes. I simplified and flattened the surface in the distance to push it back, creating a sense of the vast expanse of ocean.

Canadian painter Poppy Balser has always lived within walking distance of the ocean. Through her paintings, she aims to highlight the wild portions of Nova Scotia’s coastline.

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  1. Yes, I too live within walking distance to the ocean and find the colors different depending on the time of day. Thank you for your hints/advice.


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