How to Draw Water: The Rules, Images, & Pro Hacks

How to draw water header. Three drawings of animals in water. A dolphin, a great white shark, and a  jaguar.

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 short…

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 simple ‘rules’, let’s see how they work in practice.

A drawing of two geese swimming with reflections on a still water pond
A miniature I drew for fun 30 years ago

How to Draw Water Reflections

Reflections in still water are the easiest to draw. The ‘rules’ apply clearly without all the complications of moving shapes.

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. They appear darker in the reflection. A white boat, for example, will reflect as grey.

THE RULES OF WATER REFLECTIONS

A boat with water reflections demonstrating the rules of drawing water
The boat and the sky reflect darker

N.B. Water reflections are rarely the exact reverse image of the subject

Let’s assume we are adding some trees to a landscape, set back from the water’s edge. There is some land in-between the trees and the water. If we were to flip the trees over from the base, only a portion of the reflection would cross the waterline.

Now let’s look at a simple landscape and work out where the reflections would be. This is a quick sketch I made to demonstrate the rules, such as they are.

How to draw water step one. Drawing of trees in a landscape

STEP 1: I sketched a clump of trees in a landscape and drew an imaginary waterline. An amateur would flip the whole scene and draw the reflection, like a mirror, but this is not quite what I do.

How to draw water step 2. Adding the first riverbank reflection

STEP 2: The first thing I had to do was indicate a riverbank. I drew a slim reflection along the waterline. I diffused the detail.

How to draw water step 3. Adding the reflection of the main tree

STEP 3: I flipped the tree reflection vertically, blurred the detail, and lightened the tone slightly. It’s important that the reflection starts from the base of the tree.

How to draw water step 4. Adding the 2nd clump of trees

STEP 4: I do exactly the same thing with the clump of trees to the right. I flipped them over, from the base, and because they are further away, the refection crosses the waterline higher up. You can only see the foliage.

How to draw water step 5. Adding the furthest and last trees

STEP 5: I repeat the process on the left. The crown of the bare tree is clearly visible in the water, but the far tree is only just showing. You’ll note that the horizon line doesn’t appear as a reflection at all.

How to draw water step 6. Finally adding a dark gradient to the water

STEP 6: To add some authenticity I added a grey gradient to the water. Light skies reflect darker in water and make the scene look life-like.

Given that I’ve created this landscape out of my imagination, it looks reasonably authentic. Few would challenge the perspective. However, there is one element that is wrong, but we need to use another example to highlight the issue.

Let’s use the example of an animal, in this case, a toy sheep!

There is no need to draw it. A photo will show you how reflections work in reality.

Your eye-line will usually be above the waterline. The reflection will be exactly vertical, but, and this is important, it’s not a mirror image. The reflection will reflect the UNDERSIDE of the animal.

THE RULES OF WATER REFLECTIONS

Example of a toy sheep contrasting a real water reflection and a mirrored reflection
The real reflection is on the left. The mirror reflection is on the right

Look at the sheep on the left above. You can see the underbelly and the underside of the chin. Do you see? And the reflection starts at the base of the subject. That’s crucial to understand and to see how reflections work.

Contrast that with the reflection on the right with an exact mirror image. Do you see how the perspective is wrong? Only one foot reflects from the base. There are gaps between the other feet and the start of their reflections.

Using geometry to work things out, with perspective lines and vanishing points, doesn’t help you to figure out what the underbelly looks like. For that, you’ll need a reference.

Here’s another example of a reflection using one of my drawings.

A white tiger swimming with reflections. A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘River Crossing’ by Kevin Hayler

Notice how the tiger’s reflection is foreshortened. I viewed the tiger from above, from a distance. The whites are noticeably darker in the reflection and 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. 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 when I find them. 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 my digital scrapbook of potentially useful stuff.

It’s good practice to have a scrapbook file, you should start one.

Further Reading: Is Drawing from Photos Bad? Are you Cheating?

How to Draw Water Droplets and Splashes

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.

A drawing of a great white shark splashing in water
‘A Close Encounter’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

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. Near enough was good enough.

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.

A mid grey base tone was all I needed.

I darkened the obvious black patches with a B grade and then it was a matter of ‘lifting out’ the tones using a combination of erasers.

  • I used a Tombo-Mono eraser pen for the smaller ripples,
  • A kneadable eraser for larger areas using it to dab the paper lightly,
  • Blu-Tak to press against the graphite and lift clean patches of graphite without smudging
  • A battery eraser pen to lift the sparkling highlights

I went back and forth, erasing, shading, and erasing until I was confident that everything looked authentic and balanced.

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.

Further Reading: How to Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging. ( 5 Good Tips, Especially Number 3 )

Amateurs often assume that experts know exactly what they’re doing at all times, but 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 when you return 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.

how to draw water drops and splashes. A drawing of a jaguar leaping into water.
‘Leaps and Bounds’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

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 perfectly round, draw wonky shapes, and add tails to some of the drips.

Shade the droplets by making one side dark and the opposite light. I left a thin white rim surrounding the edge. Now highlight the dark side, 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.

The video below is not mine but it demonstrates how to draw water droplets using a blending stump.

If it goes wrong. Draw over it and do it again.

How to Draw Water Ripples

In stark contrast to the previous drawings of water 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 that drawing water ripples would be easy, it was anything but.

Drawing of a white duck on a pond with reflections and ripples.
‘Love a Duck’ A Drawing by Kevin Hayler

The duck itself was reasonably straightforward. I used hard pencils to draw in the subtle greys of the plumage and ‘lifted out’ the highlights. This is my usual method.

The water reflection 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.

Drawing the water ripples 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 a smooth water surface without the grain showing. As you can see that was only partly successful.

Drawing a duck on water steps 1 and 2. Drawing the grid, contour drawing and the duck feathers

Heaven knows why I drew such a small grid. This is a very simple shape to block in. I used mainly very hard pencils for drawing the feathers.

Dawing a duck on water steps 3 and 4. Draewing the water reflection and establishing the correct tonal values

You can see that the light feathers are reflecting darker in the water. I established the darks beneath the duck. I started to draw in the elliptical shapes and began to struggle. I tried to blend the tones with different grades of pencils.

Dawing a duck on water steps 5 and 6. Drawing the elliptical shapes of rippling water and blending the gradients

I struggled because I was fighting the paper and refused to smudge the graphite. For years I resisted blending pencil thinking that it was a pointless technique used only by amateurs, I was wrong. All I did was make work for myself.

Dawing a duck on water steps 7 and 8. Blending and adjusting every water ripple. Sharpening the forground and softening the background

The water ripples in the foreground are sharper than those in the background. I had to lose detail in the distance. You’ll also notice that there is a slight gradient, beginning with a darker tone at the front which gets progressively lighter as it recedes.

A quick 55-second video of the duck and water ripples being drawn

We all get these ideas about the right and wrong to apply your medium 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 water 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 paper grain.

This drawing represents one of the classic problems artists experience when they are continually ‘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 I’ve learned is to choose your paper carefully and don’t get complacent.

How to Draw Clear Water

The fun starts when you want to draw something in clear water. Not only have you got water reflections bouncing around, but you also 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.

A dolphin drawing viewed from above in transparent rippling water.
‘A Happy Face’ A drawing of a dolphin in a shallow lagoon

The key to drawing crystal clear water is to emphasize contrasts. The sparkles look best against the black background. You can see that more 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 drew this many years ago and painstakingly drew 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 with a paper stump. The dolphin stood out more in my colored photo, but in monochrome, I had to use more contrast to have the same impact.

I also had to make it clear that the head was above the water. Only the top of its head is in perspective. The rest of the body underwater 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 vs artistic license with the penguin drawing below.

Two similar drawings highlighting refraction issues in water.

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 side is how the photo (long since lost) really looked. The head appears separated.

You can imagine the looks of confusion if I’d presented the one on the right for sale as a finished drawing? No one would buy it.

Further Reading: How to Plan and Compose your Art (A Guide for Beginners With Examples)

The last image I will share with you is also a drawing I did of a river otter. I did it many years ago.

A river otter swimming in rippling water. Drawing transparent water
‘Backstroke’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

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 Conclusion

Drawing water doesn’t need to 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 to achieve.

Now you know how to draw water in pencil – probably.


There are more tutorials like this, take a look at:


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How to draw water in pencil, an image for Pinterest. A drawing of a jaguar leaping into water.