Today I did a workshop exploring reflections in watercolour, on water . I thought I would share some of the ideas. But why should you worry about reflections? Because watercolour is the medium that likes to give! And it does wonderful reflections without you having to try, if you only trust it:

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Take time to reflect

Rules for reflections (with thanks to the Artist’s Network, Johannes Vloothuis) :

  • Whatever is dark on dry land will be lighter in the water
  • Whatever is light on dry land will be darker in the water
  • Colours become less saturated in water reflections. Even white will need to be knocked back in the water
  • Details are lost
  • Edges are generally softer
  • Because water is more dense than air it, will absorb light. Water will almost always be darker than the sky it is mirroring

Think about the sorts of water you might encounter and the detail of the reflection you would see in them

  • Still water – an exact replica of the scene above the water (apart from the colour shift).

In effect you would be painting the same scene upside down as the reflection. I would suggest this isn’t that interesting, however if you choose to do this type of reflection you can turn your paper upside down to complete the reflection. You might see this on a high mountain lake for example.

  • Water moving lazily
  • Water ripples with more motion

These two tend to be of most interest to the artist and you might use either a wet in wet or a wet on dry technique (see below) to get the effect you are after

  • Water so disturbed you can’t see reflections

This is the sort of body of water you would see in a sea scape and here the emphasis would be on movement and waves, rather than reflection.

The technicalities of how reflections work:

With thanks to Bob Davies (search on YouTube). We have an upright post with flat water, upright with ripples, sideways post, tall thin, one leaning out over the water, one leaning away from us and one in bright sunlight to show shadow and reflection. Finally we have a building a distance from the water:


This shows how we would resolve the reflections:


Remember that laws of perspective would also apply to ripples (just like they do to clouds) smaller and closer together the further away they are…. The first three are maybe obvious – the reflection is equal to the amount sticking up. The tall thin post show how a confident squiggle can give the impression of more disturbed water. There would be more reflection if the post is leaning out over the water and less if it is leaning back. A shadow can also fall on water and should not be confused with the reflection. As for the church, you should use the top of the hill as the reflection line, not the edge of the water. This results in only the spire reflecting. I have painted it wrong, as the hill reflection should obscure some of the spire. Oops!

A couple of different approaches:

Wet in wet is a lovely watercolour approach. If you are using it slightly less wildly, say to reflect mountains or hills and you want the reflection to be recognisable but still soft and loose, you might want to paint the reflection first and then paint the scene to fit the reflection. It will look a better ‘fit’. Leaving a few white dry areas breaks the flow of the colour and gives the ripple effect. If they are lost you can scratch them out with a scalpel when the painting is bone dry.


Wet on dry is more controlled and can lead to interesting patterns.



So these last two little sketches also served as my day 3 and 4 of #WorldWatercolormonth and killed two birds with one stone.

Do take time to reflect and enjoy the process!

4 thoughts on “Reflections”

    1. Oh good! I had such a nice day looking at reflections with a lovely couple of painters. We also looked at glass, but I thought that was too much for one blog, so might add that sometime soon!

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