Painting Waves

If an artist steps outside the studio, chances are they will come upon the occasion to paint water. In the landscape, water comes in many forms and fashions, from rushing and rippling streams to crashing, foaming waves to placidly still waters. Painters faced with the question of how to paint water should keep in mind a couple of “rules,” which include that water appears cooler in tone as it gets deeper and the sky’s reflection on water usually appears darker than the sky itself. Beyond that, observation is key, as water painting can take an artist any number of places, visually speaking.

Painting waves require two essential skills: a thorough knowledge of color theory, and a good painting memory. That’s because the water is constantly in motion: unless you’re referencing from a photograph, any water painting is essentially just coming from your mind. As for color, it’s even more important for waves than for other landscapes because of the nuances and moodiness of various shades of blue. The seas must, after all, reflect the skies, but they’re never exactly the same. Watercolors are a different beast when it comes to water painting because you have to plan not only the objects on the water but also where their reflections will be. This is unlike opaque mediums where you can paint the flat water first and paint objects and their reflections on top of the bottom layer. There’s almost no room to fix mistakes – but at the same time, there’s a beautiful unpredictability to watercolors, which is the essence of the medium’s appeal.