Many artists find drawing water difficult yet, as with most techniques, there are guidelines to follow. If you want to know how to draw water, I can show you what I do.
In simple terms, darker shapes will reflect lighter, and lighter shapes will reflect darker. Water will appear darker than the sky. Reflections reveal the undersides of an object and not its reverse. And finally, reflections lose detail and align vertically
Armed with a few ‘rules’, let’s see how they work in practice.
How to Draw Reflections in Water
Still reflections are the easiest to draw in many ways. The ‘rules’ apply so clearly without the complications of movement.
A dark bank of trees reflecting in a still lake will appear lighter in the reflection. The value of the reflection will change depending on the color of the water but the rule remains constant. The reverse is true when light objects reflect. A white boat will reflect as grey in your drawing.
It is also apparent that reflections hardly ever mirror the subject.
There are rules involving perspective that can help in theory but in practice, they are of little use. Let me explain.
Let’s use the example of an animal coming down to drink. Your eye-line (horizon will be above the waterline. The reflection will be exactly vertical BUT it will reflect the underside of the animal.
Notice how the tiger’s reflection is foreshortened. I viewed the tiger from above at distance. The whites are noticeably darker in the reflection. I’ve simplified the ripples. In real life, there were reflections everywhere. I distilled the image down to the most important shapes.
When I’m stuck I try to find a photo online that matches my needs. I might, if I’m lucky have an image buried somewhere in my ‘archive’ of rejected shots that might fit the bill. If not, it’s onto Instagram and Google to try and find something similar. The search can be frustrating.
I like to save images as they present themselves organically. If I come across an image that reminds me of a photo I’ve taken in the past, I will save it. I might need the reference at some point in the future. It’s a digital scrapbook of potentially useful stuff.
Further Reading: Is Drawing from Photos Bad? Are you Cheating?
As a last resort, you can raid the kids’ toy box or buy a figurine and place it on a mirror to see how the reflection lies. Not only will you see the underside, but you’ll also be able to see any foreshortening effect and where the shadows fall.
Before I finish this section, it’s worth remembering that reflections tend to start from the base of an object. (Did someone say flying birds? Kindly leave the room)
Let’s assume we are adding some trees to a landscape and we set back from the water’s edge. There are trees, some land in-between, and then the water. If we were to flip the trees over from the base, a portion of the reflection would cross the waterline. That’s what we would draw in.
How to Draw Splashes and Water Droplets
One look at a picture with water splashing everywhere and the idea of drawing it can be overwhelming. It is, however, one of the easier effects to master. It’s all technique.
Again it’s easier to use an example to demonstrate my point. Let’s take a look at this bad boy.
It might look photographic but that doesn’t mean I copied everything super accurately. I was more interested in getting the effect to look good and then repeat the process.
My priority was to draw the shark as well as I could before I attempted the water. When I was happy enough with the way it was going I started to block in the sea using an HB, 0.3mm Pentel mechanical pencil.
I darkened the obvious black patches with a B grade and established the base zones of greys. It was then a matter of ‘lifting out’ the pencil using a combination of erasers, namely a Tombo-Mono eraser pen, a kneadable eraser, Blu-Tak, and a battery eraser pen.
Where I misjudged things, I reapplied more shading and went back and forth, erasing, shading, and erasing, until I was confident that everything looked authentic.
I’m glad I managed to keep the black water looking clean and smooth. I resisted the temptation to add more tones. The contrast between the plain simplicity of the darks against the complexity of the surf makes the image much stronger.
Amateurs often assume that experts know exactly what they’re doing at all times, that’s not the case. There is a lot of trial and error and calculated guesswork. Don’t be too concerned if things go wrong. Step back and take a break. You can usually pinpoint your errors with fresh eyes.
The icing on the cake happens when you use the battery eraser to draw the dots and squiggles at the end and the water starts to move.
By breaking down the drawing into stages, starting with the darker tones and progressively ‘lifting out’ lighter areas, a seemingly impossible task is made achievable.
Drawing the droplets, in this drawing of a jaguar, was very satisfying. To do the same, take a battery eraser and make random dots. Don’t make them all round, draw wonky shapes, and add tails to some of the drips.
Shade the droplets. Make one dark side and the opposite light, leaving a thin rim surrounding the edge. Now highlight the dark with a dot of white using the eraser pen. You now have a very realistic water splash. Don’t forget to draw all the highlights coming from the same direction.
If it goes wrong. Draw over it and do it again.
Before I round this section off, take note of the front wave to the left of the head. It looks real because the top is so dark and it sets off the whitest highlights. The wave has a slight gradient that, in hindsight, I could’ve exaggerated more, nonetheless it works well enough.
How to Draw Ripples
In stark contrast to the previous drawings which look so challenging, but were relatively easy, the next example of a duckpond was insanely difficult to draw.
It’s always the same, whenever I get over-confident, I’m brought back to earth with a bump. I assumed this drawing would be easy, it was anything but.
The duck itself was reasonably straightforward. I used hard pencils to draw in the subtle greys of the plumage and ‘lifted out’ the highlights. My usual method.
The refection of the duck was fairly easy as well. The issue I had was making the shapes align realistically. They were, in fact, more distorted in real life and didn’t look quite right. I shifted them slightly.
The water was a total pain. I went wrong primarily by choosing a textured paper instead of a smooth surface.
I wasn’t going to give up and start again because I’d spent too much time drawing the duck already. My task was to draw smooth water without the grain showing. As you can see that was only partly successful.
There is a gradient, beginning with a darker tone in the foreground of the drawing which gets lighter as it continues into the background. Ideally, the gradation would be smoother and seamless.
I struggled because I was fighting the paper and refused to smudge the pencil. For years I resisted blending pencil thinking that it was a pointless technique used only by amateurs, I was wrong.
We all get these ideas about ‘right and wrong’ and they can be hard to shake off. I should’ve used a cotton bud to gently smooth the surface, instead, I used various grades of pencil and tried to blend them ‘skillfully’.
Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)
To add to my difficulties, I had to draw precise elliptical ripples, each with its own gradients. I had no idea that drawing ellipses would be that difficult. If I was only a fraction out of line, the water illusion was lost.
I had to draw concentric ellipses, perfectly aligned, perfectly spaced, and with perfect gradients and tone. It drove me nuts, and I was constantly picking at anomalies and stray specks appearing in the grain.
This drawing represents one of the classic problems artists experience when they are ‘rescuing’ their artwork.
After investing so much time and effort, with some notable successes along the way, everything becomes far too precious. Fear sets in and you become afraid of losing all your gains. The fear itself inhibits you from making the right changes and you get stuck.
I suppose the main lesson learned was choose your paper carefully and don’t get complacent.
How to Draw Transparent Water
The fun starts when you want to draw something in the water. Not only have you got reflections bouncing around, you have the body shape and shadow all in one chaotic image.
I won’t kid you, it’s daunting, and every time I have pushed myself to the challenge, I’ve sworn I’ll never do it again. The image below is a case in point.
The key to drawing crystal clear water is to emphasize contrasts. The sparkles look best against the black background. You can see that clearly below the dorsal fin. The ripples on the far left look good for the same reason.
It’s vital to retain the white highlights if the transparency is to be convincing. To that end, I made a huge effort not to smudge the surface of the paper in any way.
Nowadays I would ‘lift’ the whites out with a battery eraser, but I draw this many years ago and painstakingly draw around the dots, one by one.
As I couldn’t use color to separate elements in the image I retained the grain in the paper to indicate the sandy seabed while smoothing the dolphin’s skin. The dolphin stood out more in my colored photo, I had to be careful not to lose it completely in monochrome. I used more contrast to compensate.
I also had to make it clear that the head was above water. Only the top of its head is in perspective. The rest of the body under water is distorted beneath the ripples.
It can be a challenge to draw a convincing animal underwater when viewed from above, the refractions may look great in a photo but bizarre in an illustration. Some judicious corrections may be required.
It’s not quite the same but I can demonstrate the difference between reality and artistic license with the penguin drawing below.
The drawing on the left is an old sketch of a penguin, seen through a tank in the Singapore Zoo. The dislocated head on the right is how the photo (long since lost) really looked.
You can imagine the looks of confusion if I’d presented the one on the right for sale.
The last image I will share with you is also a drawing I did of a river otter. I did it many years ago.
The challenge was to make the body visible in a mass of rippling water. I drew each ripple one by one. As with the dolphin drawing above, there was almost no ‘lifting out’ with an eraser. I drew this before I’d established any real technique. I was still experimenting.
It’s only the dark shapes at the sides that give form to the body, that and the slightly lighter belly. I do remember readjusting the tones over and over again to get the balance right. It was only when I was in danger of ruining the paper that I stopped.
Drawing water need not be so painful if you approach it in the right way. Remember the guidelines at the beginning. They will help a lot. Use your eraser to draw water and the most complex effects will be so much easier.
Now you know how to draw water in pencil – probably.
There are more tutorials like this, take a look at:
- How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All the Secrets)
- How Do You Get White Lines in a Pencil Drawing?
- Is it Cheating to Trace your Art? Is it Really OK?
- Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? Folly or Game-Changer?
- How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster
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