In a previous blog, I showed how to paint fire using watercolours. I’ve also shown how to paint water as a reflective surface, or even how to paint a rainy day.

For this particular tutorial, I want to share some tips on how to paint the free flow of water, from droplets to waves and bigger splashes.


Perhaps the most difficult of the forms of water to paint, since they require more precision and an understanding of how light is refracted in water. But don’t fear – I’ll show you an easy way to paint them!

First, paint a blurred version of whatever is behind the droplets of water. If your water droplets are on an opaque surface, then you can just go with one colour. If they’re on a window or glass pane, then simply wet your painting area, and drop in the colours of the sky and/or ground. The blurrier it is, the further away your background will appear to be.

Once this layer is dry, you can paint beads of water all over. If this is your first time, you can practice doing one to the side of your painting.

Water droplets are generally round in shape, but not perfectly circular. Some even have little “tails”, especially if they’re running down the window pane.

Next, determine the tones of the water droplets. Usually, each water droplet is the lightest in the area where it’s most rounded or “fuller” in volume. The darkest areas are usually around the edges, or where the droplet thins out.

To paint the dark areas, use Payne’s grey or indigo, and dilute it for the mid-tones (which should be along the top half area of each droplet).

For the highlights, use white gouache paint, and dilute it if needed.

Tip: For the dark edges, don’t simply paint an outline and leave it like that. Try and soften them along the inside of each droplet using a clean wet brush, to give the water a more spherical look!

Making Waves

Painting waves may seem a little more complex, but it’s more that it requires the right contrasts and having good water control.

Easier waves are those seen in the distance, which you can paint with the wet-in-wet technique like before. Simply wet your paper, then drop in some blues and greens in horizontal strokes. Leave some gaps of white (or lighter areas) for a shimmery surface.

For closer waves, note that the crest of each wave will be white (or close to it), while the area underneath will be the darkest. Some waves will also be in the process of collapsing, making some splashes as it crashes into the water underneath. These areas will be white, too, while the part curling over will have a little colour.

Smaller waves will also be white along the top, while the area underneath will be in a little shadow (despite also being white from the froth).

The best tip I can give you here is to paint in a generally horizontal direction, but with random line quality, unless you’re painting bigger waves. With bigger waves, determine where the wave is collapsing, and where it’s still cresting.

As I mentioned before, it takes good water control to see which areas of your paper are still wet, or only slightly damp, as the spread of paint will be affected by how wet both your paint and the paper are.

You can leave a few hard edges of paint for the crest of each wave, while other edges can be softened with clean water. And while your paint is still wet, you can even add a few splatters of clear water, which will add to the “splashy” feeling of the ocean.

Last but not least, if you feel like you’ve accidentally painted too much of the wave, you can use white gouache paint to add back some of your whites.

Splashing Around

For the intense splashes, like waves crashing onto a rock or the mist at the bottom of a waterfall, you’ll need to leave a larger area of white.

For example, if you’re going for a waterfall, the water rushing down will be pretty white, although there will still be some shadows under it. You’ll also need to contrast the white with its surroundings, which you can paint with the wet-on-wet technique.

It’s also a good idea to paint in the same direction as the water that’s falling, to give the illusion of movement.

At the bottom of the waterfall, you can gradually paint in some very light shadows for the water splashes before adding the colour of the water in front.

Once your paper is dry, you can add the foreground with the wet-on-dry technique, which is painting on a dry surface. This will contrast with the blurry effect of the water and the background, and adds a lot of depth to a painting!

Again, if you ever feel like your paint edges are too hard, you can soften them with a wet brush.

As a final touch, add a splatter of white by tapping a brush loaded with diluted white gouache paint against a pen. You can also use an old toothbrush, and run a thumb over the bristles to let a fine spray of paint fall onto your paper.

The World of Water

Like painting fire, painting water has its own set of challenges, as a lot of it is unironically about water control.

However, I hope that with the tips I’ve shared, you’ll be inspired to at least give it a try! At the very least, it will make for a good painting practice, as you can apply the same techniques in painting other watery things.

One final tip I’d like to leave you with is to use a good quality watercolour paper when painting water, preferably 100% cotton and cold press. You’ll want the paper to stay wet for as long as possible while being able to hold that much water without pilling or tearing, so go for the investment! I promise it will be worthwhile.

And lastly, have fun splashing around! And do check out the other blogs if you’re interested.

Do you struggle with painting water? What tricks do you like to use to paint a watery effect? Let us know in the comments below!

Additionally, if you’re interested in getting more tips on the creative process, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter.

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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