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Written by Caroline Jasper

My thirst for painting water is unquenchable. I cannot get enough of looking at water. While studying it I imagine how I might go about capturing its colors and movement in a painting. Precise methods simply cannot be predetermined.

I am certainly not alone in my compulsion for water. It fascinates and sustains us all. Our very lives depend upon it. We also need water on an emotional level. It makes us feel renewed. Many favorite vacation and recreation spots feature water. Everyone enjoys water in a variety of settings and frequently pay money in order to be near it. Because of its universal attraction, a painting’s appeal can be improved by including water.

As a subject for art, water is irresistible yet baffling. It constantly changes with wind, light, current, weather, and seasonal shifts. At any depth or degree of movement water’s appearance depends upon what lies under, over, on, and surrounding it. Given water’s illusive and unpredictable qualities, artists are less likely to harbor schemas for representing it. No formula for “how to paint water” can apply to more than one painting. Each water view presents a new challenge for the painter, and that is what keeps the paintings fresh.

I have always lived in close proximity to diverse bodies of water, which appear in many of my paintings. (I grew up around Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and now live on Florida’s Gulf Coast.) Although an exact way for painting water is impossible to pin down, I have come to some realizations about what to consider while painting it. What to consider while looking at water comes first.

Examining while seeing is key. Artists look at things differently than the way “normal” (non-artists) people do. Painters go far beyond simply appreciating the view. We perceive depth in the world around us but have to see our subjects as flat in order to represent the illusion of that depth. Basic perspective principles both linear and atmospheric come into play. Noticing how far up or down (near/far) things are from each other in a cropped view determines appropriate placement on canvas. Rather than seeing everything in focus at once (misconception via photography), artists become aware that our eyes can focus on one point in distance at a time. Realizing closer things differently than those in the distance, we learn to exaggerate the differences in representing them in order to compensate the viewer for canvas flatness. Seeing water as a flat, up and down vertical, left and right horizontal, view is just the beginning.

The presence of water adds to the view yet complicates the viewing process. It is not just another thing in the painting. Water combines nearly everything else in the scene plus all that comes with its own characteristics. It is important to look separately at the water’s many different parts that together account for an overall view. Just as we cannot focus on at one time on everything in depth, we cannot simultaneously see all aspects of the water. While looking at ripples we do not notice reflection, etc. We instead appreciate each of the parts independently, shifting attention between them quickly, returning to each only to find it changed. Careful study of water, whatever the setting, is required to identify its various components, set forth in checklist form below.

Water is wet and therefore reflective. Still water becomes a mirror of all that is above it. Movement of the water’s surface will cause small pieces of the reflection to disappear without losing the sense of a reflection. The contours of shadows cast across the water define its surface character.

Full spectral glare on water often appears as pure white. Depending upon the sun’s angle and water surface character, glare may be patches of whiteness near the horizon or white specs riding the crest of every small rise in the water surface. For representing glare, opaque unmixed white, applied to cover, reflects more light than anything else out of a tube.

Depending upon how clear and how deep, what lies or moves beneath the surface influences the water’s appearance. Wet-into-wet or glazed-after-drying methods yield subtle effects.

Anything riding on the water’s surface provides further evidence for the viewer that the water exists. Each floating leaf, log, boat, etc. produces its own reflection including shadows. Plan for including them before starting to paint, rather than applying them over water that was painted as if the floaters were not there.

Water stays in flux. Wind speed and direction can change by the second. Tides and currents shift constantly. Still at first light, water begins to move with natural convection as sunrise warms the air. Weather adds yet another variable. Perfectly fixed painted images of water tend to look artificial. Representing the many pieces that make water via unfixed, irregular or multiple edges can instead make for a more believable representation of how we actually see water.

Water is not supposed to be blue. A dipped out a glass-full generally comes up looking clear. Transparent and reflective, water is like a chameleon. Its color is influenced by depth. The darkest water I have ever seen in broad daylight was on the ocean miles from shore. The color of shallow water is influenced by the nature of bottom surface and mud, etc. that may be mixed in. Largely, water’s color duplicates what it reflects. The color of the sky is major factor. However, the water’s version is frequently a deeper color than the sky’s version. Water also reflects seasonal changes to the environment and atmospheric color changes according to weather and time of day.

Simplify the view in order to find main shapes. Ignore detail (Try squinting or removing glasses). Even while attending to the little pieces that actually make up these shapes, still keep track of the simple shapes that visually impart the scene.

Whether delicate or bold, brush marks create the water. Brushstroke direction can (not do, but can) matter. If the objective is smooth surface, crescent-like brushstrokes might confuse intent. Patterns vary enormously. An assortment of mirror reflection, ripples, floating leaves, glare spots, etc. may be incorporated. Some prompt vertical marks, diagonally dragging strokes for others, while others are best served by quick daubs. Near water presents greater pattern variety. The more distant the water, the harder it is to discern differences. Thus, with fewer contrasts, patterns dissolve into mass/shapes.

I paint in oils and prefer painting on a color ground of red, orange, or mixture thereof (Holbein Color Gesso: Carmine and Orange). A color ground provides a number of advantages. An immediately obvious one is that opposing colors can be applied next to each other with out getting muddy. Ground color keeps them from actually touching/mixing (particularly advantageous with oil paints, which dry slowly). Colors stay clean and the painting progresses swiftly. The choice of red-orange makes for dynamic color interactions with contrasting blues and greens often used in painting water.  

Forget formula. Think for yourself instead. Paint what you see, not what you think you should see. Paint each observed component separately while noticing only that specific component. Put each in its own place on the canvas. All of the various water parts get mingled with one another. Yet all the while each exists in isolation among the crowd of others. Mixing them together while painting only muddies colors and muddles the view. Paint each part, one at a time. They appear in between each other both in the real view and in the painting.  (Think ahead so as to avoid having to paint over something that should not have been painted there.) Step back from the canvas to see the parts assemble to resemble an overall view.

While painting water, more than with other subjects, I tend to think of paint applications as pieces in a puzzle. It is a matter of finding all of the pieces… the right color in the right shape, put in the right place. Of course, the process begins with looking, really looking, to identify all of the pieces to begin with. Even though, or perhaps because, the puzzle tends to be puzzling, I expect to never tire of watching and painting water.

"Aqualume", 18" x 24", oil on canvas
© Caroline Jasper
"On Call", 24" x 32", oil on canvas
© Caroline Jasper
"Susquehanna Sunrise", oil on canvas
© Caroline Jasper
"Wake Light", 24" x 36", oil on canvas
© Caroline Jasper

Artist Biography
Colorist Caroline Jasper’s impressionistic paintings begin on her trademark red ground. Critically acclaimed in numerous museum and gallery exhibits, her paintings are in private and corporate collections throughout the United States. In addition to her book Powercolor-Master Color Concepts for All Media via Watson-Guptill Publications and DVD Painting Water with Oilsvia Creative Catalyst Productions, she has been featured in Focus Santa Fe, Artists’ Magazine, Décor, American Artist, and Northlight magazines. With a Maryland Institute College of Art MFA and thirty plus years of teaching experience, Jasper is a nationally known workshop instructor. Her resume includes high school art department chair, Maryland College of Art and Design Admissions Advisory Board member, juror, and lecturer. Visit for more information about the artist, her work, painting workshops, book, and DVD