Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water

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!


  1. Nicholas

    I hope you realize how valuable your lessons are to some people like me who cant afford to take lessons and who rely on artists who are kind enough to put free lessons out there. Your work is incredible and your love for art and your fellow artist is beautiful and I appreciate it. Thank you

  2. Lisa

    Carrie, thanks so much for this! I am just dabbling at sketching (mostly landscapes), and you answered most of my questions. I was wondering how much reflections are similar to shadows. I read somewhere that when you draw shadows (cast shadows, to be specific), there’s a very slight gap between the object and its shadow–this gap will be lighter than the shadow, but darker than the object itself. Is the same true of reflections?

    1. Lisa,

      The “gap” you speak of is reflected light. Reflected light is light that bounces from one object to another, and it affects both the object and the object’s cast shadow.

      Since water is so reflective, there will be reflected light on both the object in the water (say a boat) and the water.

      Pay close attention to your reference photo, and draw what you see. There will almost always be reflected light in the water, but how bright or dim it is depends on how bright or dim the light source is, and the surface color and texture of the object in the water.

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