How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing

Welcome to Q&A December! We begin the month with a question I’ve been asked more than once: how to draw a wave. Here is Gail’s question:

Hi Carrie,

How do you do a line drawing of waves and then how do you draw the mist and foam from the water?

Overall… water is what bugs me. I never know how much to put into a line drawing when it comes to ripples and highlights, or foam or spray. 


Thank you for the question, Gail.

I know beyond all shadow of doubt that you’re not alone in wanting to know how to draw waves and water in other forms. In fact, questions about drawing water are among the questions most often asked most artists.

How to draw a wave line drawing

How to Draw a Wave

Since Gail’s question specifically deals with making a line drawing, I’ll show how I make a line drawing of a wave. I’ll also say up front that this is how I make a freehand line drawing of anything I might want to draw, but especially landscape subjects.

Before you start drawing.

Take a few minutes to look at your subject. I don’t mean a quick glance, either. Look for the big shapes. The colors and details are no doubt what first drew your attention, but ignore those for now. Instead ask yourself the following questions.

What shape best describes this wave? Is it triangular or more oval?

Which of the shapes is the largest, and how much larger is it than the shapes around it?

How do the shapes relate to one another in location?

If you have difficulty seeing the shapes, turn your reference photo upside down or flip it side to side. That gives you a different look at the image. Turning it upside down is especially effective in tricking your brain into seeing abstract shapes instead of a wave (or whatever else you’re drawing.)

And if you can’t get past those beautiful colors, make the reference photo gray scale!

Step 1: Mark the Borders of the Drawing

I’ve found over the years that the best way to get a more accurate line drawing is to first take a minute or two to define the picture plain (the drawing area.) You don’t need fancy tools to do this.

Two Ways to Mark Borders

A precut mat of the right size is an ideal tool for marking borders.

This is one of my precut mats. I have various sizes so I marked each one with the size of the opening so I could tell at a glance what size I’m looking at. Beats measuring them every time!

I lay the mat over the drawing paper and lightly draw along the inside edges. The result looks like this. Not very fancy, I admit, but this is just a line drawing after all!

How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing - Mark the Borders of teh Picture
Unless you’re drawing directly on the same paper you will be making the artwork on, you don’t need a fancy border. Just enough to mark the margins, as shown here.

If you prefer to draw directly on your drawing paper—which I do for landscapes—measure the picture plane on your drawing paper, then draw the borders more carefully. Or tape the paper to a back board so the tape marks the border, then proceed with the next steps.

How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing - Tape the margins when drawing directly on good drawing paper.
If you choose to start sketching your wave directly on the paper you plan to use for the finished artwork, mark the borders of the drawing with tape when you mount the paper to your drawing board. Measure it first, so the corners are square.

Step 2: Rough in the Basic Shape

Start with the biggest shapes. Use light pressure to outline them. I’ve drawn this wave a little darker than I usually would so you could see it. I have such a naturally light hand, that my scanner cannot see my first marks!

Pay close attention to the relationships between the big shapes. Draw them as close to the reference photo as you can, but let’s be honest. No one is going to know if your shapes are not 100% accurate.

In the beginning, concentrate on the big shapes, their size compared to one another, and their placement to one another.

Vary the type of strokes to draw different parts of the wave.

Use different types of strokes to draw different parts of the wave, so you can tell the difference between rolling water, foam, and mist. Since mist rarely has clear edges, use dotted lines or simple dots to mark out where it will be in the drawing. You might even want to do this first, since mist will hide or obscure whatever is behind it.

This detail shows the types of marks I used to sketch this wave. The wave itself is a series of short, straight or slightly curving marks. The foam is sketched with wiggly or curving strokes that are also short.

Vary the way you make marks for the different elements of the composition.

The mist is barely suggested with a series of dots.

If it helps, draw these shapes with short lines as this detail shows. For some of us, it’s easier to draw short, straight lines rather than working out longer lines. Especially with very difficult subjects like this one.

Step 3: Add Smaller Details

When you’re satisfied you have the large, basic shapes correct (or as correct as you want them to be,) begin adding smaller details. Continue looking for shapes, but now look for the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Also begin refining all the shapes. If you used short straight lines for the big shapes, start smoothing them out and making them look more like the curved shapes of the wave.

Continue using light pressure so you can draw over these lines if needed. Drawing with light pressure also means you can erase mistakes more completely.

This is also a good time to start creating the illusion of space or distance to your drawing by making the foreground shapes a little darker and more detailed than the background shapes.

I added a line in the left background to suggest another wave coming in and made the similar line on the right a little crisper.

Continue using light pressure and varying marks to add smaller shapes within the larger shapes.

Step 4: Refine Shapes and Continue Adding Details

Refine all of the shapes and continue adding details until you have as complete a drawing of the wave as you want. That will differ from artist to artist. Some prefer to keep the line drawing loose and to fill in the details at the rendering stage. Others want completely detailed line drawings before starting with color. The choice is yours.

However you draw a wave, it’s important to aim for capturing the character or personality of the wave rather than making an exact drawing.

Develop details as you refine shapes. Continue until the drawing is satisfactory.

One Note About Mist

When you start doing color work on your wave, it’s very important to mark out the mist first. Mist can be pretty opaque or fairly translucent, so you may be able to see some things through it. The best way I’ve found to draw believable mist is to work around it with the first few layers. Then lightly layer color over it and then lift color with mounting putty.

In Answer to Gail’s Question About How Much Detail to Include in a Line Drawing When You Draw a Wave

I have two answers to this part of Gail’s question.

Personal Preference and Line Drawing Detail

The first answer is that this is a personal preference matter. Some artists draw every visible detail, and with good reason. It’s so difficult to preserve some of those details if they’re not in the line drawing. It’s also very difficult to add them later if you accidentally cover them!

Some artists find highly detailed line drawings an absolute must. Other artists find them confusing and unhelpful. This won’t help you at all, but I have had occasion to experience both!

Style of Drawing and Line Drawing Detail

The second answer is that the level of detail you draw depends on your style of drawing. If you want to render highly detailed artwork, then it’s probably going to help you to draw as much detail as possible from the start.

But if you prefer a more painterly and less detailed end result, then you don’t need to draw quite as much detail in the line drawing.

Subject and Line Drawing Detail

I tend to draw detail based on my subject. For animals, and especially for portraits, my line drawings are much more detailed.

Most of my animal line drawings are quite detailed. That’s because everything needs to be in the right place in order to draw the proper likeness of my subject. From Palomino Horse Tutorial.

Landscapes, on the other hand, are usually just quick sketches and are drawn directly on the drawing paper!

This is the type of line drawing I typically do for landscapes. The details in landscapes tend to take on a life of their own and I prefer following to see where the details lead rather trying to force them into place.

That’s One Way to Draw a Wave

It’s not the only way, by any means, but when it comes to freehand drawing most types of landscapes, this is my go-to method.

When you’ve finished your drawing, it’s a good idea to set it aside for at least a day. Letting a fresh drawing sit overnight allows you to review it with a fresh eye the next day. That’s the perfect time for spotting errors in the drawing or finding things you might want to change.

And when it comes to colored pencil work, finding and fixing those mistakes before you start work with a colored pencil is far better than trying to fix the mistake after a few layers of color.

How to Draw Wet Stones with Colored Pencil

Last week, I showed you how to draw wet pavement. This week, we’ll continue the discussion with a tutorial showing you how to draw wet stones with colored pencil.

How to Draw Wet Stones with Colored Pencil

Basic Tips to Remember

Before we get to the tutorial, let’s look at a few basics that will help you draw wet stones more accurately all the time.

Colors look darker when wet.

These six stones are dry. The light falls on them without much hoopla. No really bright, shining highlights or sharp edges in color or value other than where the stones themselves have sharp edges.

Here are the same stones, with a little bit of water dropped onto them. Still no bright, shining highlights or sharp edges.

But you can see one change.

The wet areas are darker than the dry areas. This is important, because water almost always makes a surface look darker. There’s a scientific explanation I’m sure, but all we need to know as artists is that it happens.

You’ll also notice that the darker the stones, the more obvious the difference. The light-colored stone in the lower right corner exhibits very little difference. You really have to look to see tell the wet part from the dry part.

The middle stone in that row, however, shows an obvious difference.

Highlights are brighter on wet stones than on dry stones.

Darker color isn’t the only way to tell where the water is. Look at the light colored stone in the detail below. The highlight is brighter and has sharper edges than the rest of the stone, because that’s the part that’s wet.

This is why it’s so important to look closely at your subjects—yes, even stones if they’re an important part of the composition. If you don’t, you’ll end up drawing generic stones. That’s all right if the stones are background, but not if they’re the subject!

Here are the same six stones completely wet. The biggest difference between the way they look wet and the way they look dry (other than value) is the highlights. They’re more reflective, so there are more highlights. The highlights are also brighter and have sharper edges.

All of these factors play a role in drawing stones—or anything else—so it looks wet. Each detail varies from object to object, but they will all be present.

Now for the tutorial!

How to Draw Wet Stones with Colored Pencil

Step 1: Draw your subject.

Use light to medium-light pressure to draw your subject.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 1 Line Drawing

NOTE: My line drawing is a little darker than normal so it would show up digitally.

Step 2: Shade the darkest shadows.

Use a loose, circular stroke to shade basic shadows on the stone. For the cast shadow, use a horizontal stroke. Make sure the cast shadow is darkest next to the stone.

Also take note of the reflected light areas on the shaded side of the stone. The stone is wet, so reflected light areas are more noticeable than they would be on a dry stone.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 2 First Shading

Step 3: Outline the brightest highlights, and darken the darkest shadows.

Because this stone is wet, the highlights are quite bright with sharp edges. You won’t be able to shade a slightly darker value over the highlights, then lift enough color to produce the right effect. You have to work around the highlights.

So outline the brightest of the highlights with a light touch, but a firm, thin line. If you’re working on white paper, all you need to do is shade around them.

If you’re working on a colored paper, fill in the highlights with White. That will help preserve them if you accidentally work over them.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 3 Darken Shadows Mark Highlights

Also darken the darker shadows within the larger shadows, as shown on the shaded side of the stone.

Step 4: Add the middle values.

Lightly shade middle values throughout the stone, be very careful to work around the highlights.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 4 Shade Middle Values

TIP: When you outline the highlights, draw them larger than they’ll end up being, especially if you’re working small. I drew my highlights too small, and they’ve all but disappeared! The drawing is only 4 inches wide.

Step 4: Add some color.

Layer a medium color over the under drawing with very light pressure.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 4 Add Brown Layer

Step 5: Darken the values on the shadowed side, but keep the edges sharp.

Remember to treat the color and value shapes as abstracts in order to draw the look of water or wetness.

Color saturation also helps convey the look of water or wetness. The less paper showing through your drawing, the stronger the illusion of water.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 5 Darken Values

I also added yellow to the surface on which the stone was resting, and glazed it over the shadow. Make sure your drawing reflects the color of whatever it is sitting on or next to.

The illusion of wetness will also be enhanced by drawing water around the object, as shown above, under the right end of the stone. Keep the edges sharp, and refer often to your reference photo.

Step 6: Blend with Odorless Mineral Spirits to smooth out the color.

Add a few more layers of color, always working around the highlights.

Then use a soft brush to blend the colors, especially if you’re using a paper with a lot of tooth. I used Canson Mi-Tientes white, so even though I worked on the smooth side, there was still a lot of tooth to fill.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 6 OMS Blend

Step 7: Add a Couple of Shades of Blue and White Highlights

Layer a medium and light blue over the parts of the stone facing the sky. Use medium to heavy pressure, and burnish in a few places for lighter, bright color.

Then burnish with a soft White pencil. I tried Luminance, Polychromos, and Prismacolor. For the brightest highlights, Prismacolor worked the best on this paper and over so much color. That’s not surprising because Prismacolor pencils are wax-based so are naturally much softer than the other two brands, which are oil-based.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 7 Add Reflected Light

Step 8: Darken the Darkest Values

For the final detailing work, I put away my reference photo, and adjusted the drawing so the stone made sense visually. I also switched to Prismacolor pencils.

I burnished Indigo Blue and Dark Brown repeatedly over the darkest shadows, and Dark Brown into the darker values.

The lightest reflected light is Yellow Ochre burnished with Sand, and the lighter middle values are Dark Brown burnished with Yellow Ochre.

I also added a couple of white accents to the water under the rock and to reflected light on the rock.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 8 Darken Shadows

Step 9: Finishing Details

Finishing details depend a lot on the way you want your art work to look, the level of realism you’re aiming for, and the subject you’re working on.

I added reflected light to a few more surfaces, darkened shadows on the lightest sides of the stone, and cleaned up the edges somewhat.

Draw Wet Stones - Step 9 Finishing Details

Now You can Draw Wet Stones of Your Own

Look for a good reference photo and then follow the steps above.

Small studies like this are a good way to learn a new subject or technique or test new pencils or paper. They don’t have to be perfect.

I confess to not being entirely happy with this study, but it is the first wet stone I’ve ever drawn.  The subject is a difficult and complex one, though, so I can tell you not to give up if your first drawing doesn’t meet with your approval!

How to Draw a Wet Street or Parking Lot

Over the last couple of months, readers have asked how to draw water on various things. Some want to know how to make water look wet; others want to know how to draw a wet street, sidewalk or other things.

The fact of the matter is that I could do a month of posts every day and still not cover everything. But there is good news! There are a few basic things you can do to make almost anything look wet.

I’ll show you those basics with a couple of samples, one this week and one next week.

How to Draw a Wet Street or Parking Lot

How to Make Things Look Wet

There are a couple of things to remember when drawing water or wet things. Water does not have a color, so you can’t draw “water color.” What you draw is the way water affects the color of other things, and the way the environment affects the water.

Most of the time, wetness makes a color look darker. Look at the stones in the foreground below. The part of each stone that’s wet is darker than the dry parts. So one way to make things look wet in a drawing or painting is to make the wet areas darker, even if the change is very slight.

How to Draw a Wet Street 2

Wetness also tends make a surface more shiny. The wetter something is, the shinier it is. The stones closest to the water above are very wet, so they’re very shiny. The highlights are bright and have crisp edges.

The stones in the middle ground are damp, but not as wet as the stones closer to the water. They still have bright highlights, but not quite as bright. The edges of the highlights are softer, too.

In the parking lot shown below, most of the surface is shiny to some degree. You can see reflections in the standing water, but in the places where the pavement is wet, but where water isn’t standing, there are no reflections. It’s shinier than it would be dry, but no reflections are visible.

How to Draw a Wet Street 3

When drawing water, remember that the edges are almost always crisp and sharp. There are few subtle or gradual gradations between values or colors on water. Those sharp edges are what make the water look wet.

Read Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water.

Let’s take a look at a quick step-by-step showing you how to draw a wet street, parking lot or any other paved surface.

How to Draw a Wet Street or Parking Lot

Step 1: Rough in the Area around the water or wet spot.

Draw the area around the water. For the parking lot, I sketched in the area beyond the parking lot (including the yellow curb,) and the part of the lot that’s not as wet. Don’t go into a lot of detail, but use strokes to define the areas you’re drawing.

For example, I used short vertical strokes and stippling strokes to draw the grass with two shades of green (one light and one dark.) For the curb, I used a light and dark yellow, then toned it down with a warm gray. I drew the parking lot with horizontal strokes of a light-medium brown and a light-medium pink-ish color.

How to Draw a Wet Street 5

By the way, I’m drawing on Stonehenge Pearl Grey paper, and will be using the color of the paper to help produce the gray-light quality of the reference photo.

It’s important to choose colors that match your reference photo. That’s why I’m not naming colors, since your reference will not be the same as mine.

It’s also important to take into consideration the color of paper you draw on. That color will influence the colors you put on it, and will also influence the overall drawing.

Step 2: Rough in the colors and shapes in the water or wet area.

Use light pressure and horizontal strokes to shade color into the water or wet area. Horizontal strokes because all reflections should be drawn with horizontal strokes, as should all water. Light pressure because you may have to blend several colors together to get the correct colors and values.

Remember that whatever you draw in the water will be a reflection. The gray-blue is a reflection of the stormy sky. The green is a reflection of trees (I’ve sketched in one as a reference point.) The white vertical shape is a light pole.

How to Draw a Wet Street 6

Also remember that the colors of the reflection are likely to be slightly darker than the colors of the object being reflected.

Step 3: Darken the colors in the water or wet spot.

Remember, anything that’s wet is usually darker in color and value than when it’s dry.

Even so, it’s best to continue using light pressure to layer and blend color. Keep your strokes horizontal (something that’s not always easy to do.) Refer to your reference photo and do your best to duplicate where and how colors and values appear.

How to Draw a Wet Street 7

I used the side of a pencil to apply color on the left side of this drawing, and the point of the pencil on the right. For smooth water like I’m drawing, the side of the pencil worked better, but try different strokes to get the result you want.

Step 4: Finish with additional color as needed, detailing, and blending.

Finish the water or wet spot to your satisfaction. That may include only more layers of color, or you may choose to burnish or blend with odorless mineral spirits.

I blended the area to the left of the vertical white reflection with odorless mineral spirits. I used a sable round and horizontal strokes.

The rest of the water was burnished with a combination of dark gray and white.

How to Draw a Wet Street 8

The most important thing to remember with a drawing like this is that things outside your drawing influence the water or wet spot. For example, the colors and values in the sample reflect the color of the sky, which was dark and stormy. I didn’t draw that for this sample, but it still influenced the color of the water and wet areas.

If you want to know how to draw a wet street, sidewalk or any other type of concrete surface, this is the method I suggest.


If I were drawing a scene like this as a finished drawing (instead of a demo piece,) I’d push it further. More color, deeper values, additional details. In other words, I’d want it to look as close to real as possible.

You may want more realism or less, so adjust your methods accordingly.

Next week, I’ll show you how to draw a wet rock.

Is there something you’d like to know how to draw and make look wet? Let me know by clicking on the Ask Carrie button on this page and sending me your request!

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water

We all welcome tips for drawing reflections on water, don’t we? Water is notoriously difficult to draw well, and it’s certainly the concern of Cindy, who asks today’s question.

Hi. First I’d like to say thank you for your help.
I’m trying to do a sailboat, with reflections on water. If you have some tips that would be great. Cindy

What a great question, Cindy. Thank you for asking! I know there are many others anxious for the answers.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water

Drawing water is a topic capable of taking up several full-length tutorials. Rather than wait until I can do a tutorial, I’ll share a few basic tips that apply to drawing any kind of reflections on any kind of water.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water

To All Perfection There is An End

Water is fluid. It looked different the instant before your reference photo was taken, and it looked different the instant after. It will never look exactly the same again. Not that anyone will notice, at any rate.

So don’t fret over trying to get every single detail correct. Instead, focus on the general shapes and the overall character of your subject and its reflection.

Think “Abstract”

Here’s a very nice picture of a sailboat on water. The colors are beautiful and the reflections are really interesting.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Full Image

But there’s an awful lot of information in the photo, even if you are looking only at the boat and its reflection. It’s nearly overwhelming, isn’t it?

Let’s look at just the reflection. Still a lot going on, but now the focus is on the shapes in the water.

And that’s where you begin to see that all these shapes are really abstract shapes. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Draw each piece, make it close to the right size, shape, and color, and when you finish you have a reflection!

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Abstract Shapes

Try a Different Point of View

The human brain has an uncanny ability to observe. After we’ve seen something a certain number of times, our brains begin to learn what details should be there, even when the eye cannot see them.

That’s good…except when you’re drawing something. Why?

Because after a while, your brain begins telling your hand what should be in a picture, instead of letting your eye see what’s really there. An example.

I’ve been drawing horses for over 50 years. When I draw horses now, it’s automatic to draw a hoof in a certain way. My brain has learned what a hoof looks like in general, so it assumes that all hoofs look like that. The problem is that no two hoofs are exactly the same. I MUST let my eyes (rather than my brain) tell my hands what to draw.

The same thing applies to any subject. Even if you’ve never drawn a reflection on water before, you’ve seen enough of them that your brain thinks it knows what a reflection looks like.

You need to find a way to quiet your brain so your eyes can show you what’s really in your photo reference. One excellent way to do that is to turn your photo reference upside-down and work with your drawing turned upside down, too. Your eyes see this image and your brain says, “Ah ha! Something new to look at! Woo-hoo!” You’re immediately able to see the shapes and colors not as a reflection on water, but as a collection of abstract shapes.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Upside Down

You can also do this by looking at your reference in a mirror (or by flipping it horizontally as shown below.) The drawback with this method is that you can’t easily view your drawing in the same way.

I use this method when I really get stuck on something, but it’s almost always a last resort!

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Horizontal Flip

Darker Reflections

Here’s the full image again. Notice that the whites in the sail are lighter than the whites in the reflection of the sail. The pinks in the sail are also darker than the pinks in the reflection of the sail.

As a matter of fact, the reflection of the sky is darker than that the sky.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Full Image

Under most circumstances, any reflection on water will be darker than whatever is being reflected. The difference between the subject and the reflection varies depending on time of day, atmospheric conditions, and the nearness of the object, but there will always be a difference.

What’s more, the further the reflection gets from the object, the darker it gets. Look how much grayer the reflection is at the bottom of the image, than up close to the boat.

Values Not Color

Get the values right and getting the colors right isn’t as important. Get the colors right, but miss the target on values, and your drawing will be dull and lifeless. Flat.

Of course there are times when contrast will be low. Night scenes, foggy scenes, and similar settings will have less contrast than a middle-of-the-day, brightly lighted scene. But it’s still important to draw enough contrast so the drawing makes sense. That’s why I like doing an under drawing so much. An under drawing allows me to work out the values enough that the under drawing could be a standalone drawing. It’s the substance of the drawing. The color is  a wonderful addition.

Read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.

Sharp Edges

The thing about drawing water—or anything wet or highly reflective—is the quality of the edges between values and colors. Most of them are pretty sharp. There are abrupt changes between values and colors, as you can see here.

Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water - Sharp Edges

Yes, there are some value and color shifts that are more subtle, but they are much less frequent than if you were drawing something soft or dry. So pay attention to those edges and make sure they’re crisp and clearly defined. Even when it doesn’t look right while you’re drawing it.


Those are my tips for drawing reflections on water. They’re the most important basics in drawing water correctly. Once you master these, the rest is, well, clear sailing!