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How to Paint Water With Acrylics

Georgina writes on all types of subjects. She has published a children's book, has written for UK magazines, and is a passionate artist.

The final piece, a semi abstact landscape of water with stepping stones.

The final piece, a semi abstact landscape of water with stepping stones.

Abstract Acrylic Landscape Painting

Most of you know me as a pastel painter, or as an artist who draws extremely detailed black and white pieces. Well—it's time for a change. Here's a 'how to' on painting water using acrylics, in semi-abstract form.

As an artist, I find that it's important at times to challenge myself to prevent work from becoming staid and lacking spirit. There are a few simple ways to challenge your artistic abilities, perhaps by using different materials from your familiar ones, painting different subjects or genres, or taking a course that's completely unrelated to your usual line of artistic work.

I decided recently, that I needed a break from my pastel and line drawing work. I'd just finished two black and white commissions back to back, which took six months' work of tiny detail, after which I was all 'drawn out' and ready for a fresh challenge, so I decided to give acrylics a whirl.

Equipment List

BrushesAcrylic PaintsSundries

3" soft bristle brush

Titanium white


2" soft bristle brush

Ultramarine Blue

Water pot

1" soft bristle brush

Brilliant Red

Cleaning rags

1/2" soft bristle brush

Cadmium Yellow

1" diamond shaped palette knife

1/4" soft bristle brush

Burnt Umber

Prepared canvas

Sap green

First off, I bought a standard, pre-prepared artist's canvas. There are many good sources of these on the market, and they're great if you just want to get started with painting, rather than spending time making your own frame, stretching the canvas, painting and sanding coats of gesso yourself, although I'm sure purists would prefer to do their own stretching. Being the impatient sort and always keen to get going, the pre-stretched canvas wins for me every time.

Step one in painting water in acrylics is to prepare the canvas for acrylic painting of water.

Step one in painting water in acrylics is to prepare the canvas for acrylic painting of water.

Preparing Your Artist's Canvas

I, first of all, painted the entire background with a bright vermillion red to provide a ground to work from. I chose this colour because it's a contrast on the colour wheel to all the blues I'll be using in the painting (using complementary colours really makes a painting vibrant).

My intention is to leave some of this red showing through, to make the painting glow. The only problem I have with this is that it's easy to get carried away and entirely paint over the base, so I have to work hard at not doing this. Painting a base colour on the canvas also gives a slightly smoother base layer on which to work, as the paint fills some of the tooth of the canvas, and somehow it's less scary making a mark on a coloured ground than it is on a stark, white one. I then mixed a watery solution of ultramarine blue and water and drew very basic outlines of where I wanted the main structures to be. The blue line over the red ground looks almost black.

Cockerpoo drawing "Myla": I started with the eyes on this commissioned drawing of my friend's Cockerpoo.

Cockerpoo drawing "Myla": I started with the eyes on this commissioned drawing of my friend's Cockerpoo.

How to Paint the Sky in Acrylics

It makes sense to start a painting with the background, which in this case is the sky, the background shrubbery and the sandy layer underneath the shallow stream. However, I admit that when I'm creating my detailed black and white work, I start with the bit that most interests me and work outwards, seeing how one piece fits with the next, and the next. For example with Myla, I started with those gorgeous eyes.

For the sky in this abstract painting, I mixed up a thinnish (about the texture of single, or light cream) mix of ultramarine, titanium white and a little red and began slapping this on with a 3" brush, using random brushstrokes, so that there was plenty of movement in the sky, and remembering to leave some red ground showing (I find that so hard to do).

The light is coming from the right of centre in this picture, so I kept the outer edges of the sky darker and made the central area and nearer the horizon lighter, by adding in more white as it went along. As I worked towards the horizon, I made a very pale yellow with cadmium yellow and titanium white and painted this into the still wet blue background. Acrylics dry extremely quickly, so you're not going to get a lot of colour mixing by painting wet into wet without using a flow improver, but there will be enough of this happening to produce some good textures in the background.

Step two is painting in the background of this semi-abstract acrylic landscape.

Step two is painting in the background of this semi-abstract acrylic landscape.

Painting Water Background

Once happy with my sky, I worked down the painting, roughly adding a thin layer of burnt umber, with some green and red paint, not well mixed, so that the mixing occurred on the canvas. Again, this adds texture and movement to the underpainting. I kept these strokes fairly vertical, as this enhances the reflective quality of the water when the painting advances.

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I added the position of the stepping stones, using a mid grey and a 2" brush, just suggesting their general placement and shape. At this stage, they look as if they are floating in mid-air.

I then used the 3" brush, and mixed blue and yellow, with some hints of red in places to block in the foliage at the right-hand base of the painting.

Mixing Grey Tones

As soon as the sky was fully dry, which took around 30 minutes, I switched to the 2" brush. Using larger brushes initially stops you from becoming overly detailed and fussy with a painting too early on.

I put in a suggestion of background trees, in a mixture of lilac-grey and grey, made using ultramarine, red and white for the lilac grey and the same with a dash of yellow for the other grey. To create the suggestion of trees, I loaded just the tip of the 2" brush, held it at a slight angle and dabbed the paint on in very rough vertical lines.

You can make a variety of tones of grey with just four colours—ultramarine, yellow, red and titanium white. Mixing them in differing proportions depending on the coolness, warmth or hue you are looking for. Naturally, the more white you add will make the colour paler and more opaque.

Adding Detail to the Water Painting

I then used ultramarine and yellow to make a strong green to block in the evergreen shrubbery in the background and to further darken the greenery in the foreground.

Then for the fun part!

I mixed a variety of dark and pale lilac blues with ultramarine, a dash of red and titanium white. using the 2" brush, and a 1" diamond-shaped palette knife, I began loosely adding water in horizontal strokes, keeping the lighter blues towards the centre of the painting and the darker towards the outer edges and foreground.

It was important to leave the brown base layer grinning thorough, to suggest the sandy bottom of the pool. I also layered on some neat titanium white, to suggest some foam on the water at the base of the tree.

Switch to a 1" Artist's Brush

Once the water was dry, I switched to the 1" artist's brush and began blocking in the main trees in the same way that I did the background foliage, and I also added more detail to the stepping stones.

As the light is coming from the right of centre, the trees and stones will be lighter on that side, so I kept my paler values for the right side of each branch and stepping stone.

Once this layer was dry, I switched to the two smaller brushes and added warmer or cooler gray values to the trees and stones. I also added foliage around the main trees and shadows to the left of the stepping stones and tree island.

I kept working over the entire painting, standing back and reviewing each layer as I did so until I thought the piece was finished.

I initially thought I would put some very dark foliage detail in the foreground, but actually, once I had the painting resolved this far, decided that I didn't need to and that doing so would distract the viewer from the water.

Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones

When to Stop Painting

This is always a difficult question, as it's so easy to completely overdo a piece of work. In my years as an artist, I've developed a plan to help stop me from overpainting and completely ruining a picture.

I quit painting when I'm just about happy with the work. It then goes up on the wall in my studio, or I might leave it on my lovely scholar's easel, either way, I look at it in passing every day, and gradually things that need altering or resolving further begin to grate on me. After a few weeks of this almost passive observation, I take the painting down, make any obvious alterations, then put it back on display.

I allow myself two alterations and no more. If the painting is not resolved after two changes, it stays as it is, warts and all!

Tips for Painting With Acrylics

  • Paints: Buy the biggest pot or tube of titanium white you can afford, as you will use loads of it, more than any other colour.
  • Buy the best you can afford. When just starting out, it's OK to buy inexpensive sets of paint, they're great for just getting you going, but as you improve, try to buy better, respected brands and you'll notice the difference.
  • You may need to use a flow improver, acrylics dry so quickly that they can be going off within three strokes, or on your palette.
  • Work fat over lean, which means, start with thinner coats of paint in the background, and build up to fatter ones and you'll find this easier for working.
  • Brushes: Start big and work small, to avoid over-fussiness at the beginning of the painting.
  • Sundries: Buy a good wipe-clean palette, the best you can afford, a stay-wet one is useful, but if you don't have that, then keep your palette covered with a piece of cling wrap to keep the paint moist and pliable.


Vicki McIntyre on June 08, 2017:

Love your painting! Would so love to see you do a tutorial on this being a painter for only 4 years I have grown to love acrylics and always looking forward to trying new ways. Thank you

Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on March 08, 2015:

Thank you for showing the steps in painting water. I'll certainly be using your hub for reference next time I paint it! Voted useful.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on December 25, 2014:

I will be back to study this out. I dabble with painting and looks like you can tell me all I don't know!

You have many great hubs I will want to check as soon as possible^+

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 21, 2014:

Great hub Georgina. I have drawn most of my life and love paintings and painters but can you believe I have never really attempted to paint...well maybe once when I was at school. I can not even explain why..maybe a fear of failure. I especially like the look of pastel paintings so I'll have to read other hubs you have written on that. Voted up.

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on December 13, 2014:

Thanks Terris kitchen and yasminsart. I'll keep at it!

Yasmin Crawford-Hunt from Shenyang, China on December 12, 2014:

I love your paintings! Great hub, voted up and beautiful .

Terri Mitchell from Dartmoor on December 10, 2014:

Great hub...Love it!

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on December 09, 2014:

Thanks Ann1 Az2, my usual materials are pastel or ink, so this is a little change for me. Glad you like it.

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on December 09, 2014:

Interesting technique and very informative. My grandfather painted with acrylics, but my mother was an oil painter. I, unfortunately, did not inherit that side of my family's talents but took after my grandmother who played the piano. Still, I learned respect for the art of drawing and painting.