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How to paint water in oils

If you want to learn to paint water in oils, you're in the right place. This guide will teach you how to master the rippling effect that's so complex, as it means you’re taking on the task of painting a disrupted reflection. Here, Aaron Miller will show you exactly how to make it work. 

This can be tricky to imagine so Miller often likes to make his own reference before he starts, which he will also run through in a moment. Before you get started though, make sure you've got the best oil paints at the ready and the best oil paint canvas, too. Ready? Here's Miller's expert tutorial.

How to paint water in oils

01. Make some reference

(Image: © Aaron Miller)

I use a mirror, my palette and a toy and I stir the water to get the ripples and then take a photograph to work from. You can also leave your reference next to you if you can, in order to experiment with different water effects.

Once your reference is made and you've got all the oil paint supplies you need, you're ready to go...

02. Start with the dark colours

I start with the darks of the water as my base. When you're working in oils, you usually work from dark to light anyway, so this is a natural approach. You can work thin and with your more transparent hues. Your transparent colours will be Indian Yellow, Oxides (red, orange, yellow, and brown are a few I use), Viridian, Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue and Ultramarine, to name a few (check this art supplies post if you need more suggestions for the best paint to use).

A reflection will tend to be darker than the object being reflected. The shadows from objects will similarly have some reflection but will usually make what’s below the water visible, and the values are usually darker as well. You can have fun with this stage and get all those dark and saturated colours mixed around. Let this dry (if you’re working en plein air, you should work thin).

03. Add the light colours

(Image: © Aaron Miller)

When you start on the lighter colour, the reflection of the sky, it’s best to premix the gradient. It makes the decision about which colours to pick easier! In areas where there is contrasting detail, choose one to focus on and consider painting back into the sky reflection with the shadow colours. To create the ripples in the painting, it’s much easier to paint the gradient of the reflected sky over most of the area and paint the darks back in again.

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Aaron Miller is an award-winning illustrator best known for his fantasy paintings for games such as Magic: the Gathering. Oils are his favourite medium.
With contributions from