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Pastel Workshops - How To Paint Water

How To Paint Water

This article is the fourth in my series of Pastel workshop pieces and focuses on painting water using soft pastels. Specifically we look at techniques to portray lakes, pools, ponds or rivers rather than the ocean. I'll be dealing with painting the ocean in a later Pastel Workshop, as the techniques are quite different.

Pastel Workshops - How To Paint Water

Reflections of Autumn - SOLD.   Unison pastels on Colourfix paper

Reflections of Autumn - SOLD. Unison pastels on Colourfix paper


Before making a start, decide on the general composition of your painting. It's very common when painting a watery scene to have overhanging branches or fallen trees in odd places, that would cause disharmony within the finished piece. If that's the case in your scene, then simply leave these out. Don't forget to construct your final painting so that the eye is lead around the composition (If you're stuck, my earlier Pastel Workshop articles can help).

The table below lists everything you need to get started.

Materials Required

Essential MaterialsMaybe Needed


Drawing Board


Pastel paper

Paintbrushes hard and soft



belnding tools



Background Painting - Underpainting

You can either use pastels to create the underpainting of your piece, or watercolours, but if you do choose watercolours, you need to make sure your pastel paper is up to the job, that it will cope with wet paint without cockling.

Either way, choose your background colours. Remember, the further away objects are, the more muted their colour will be. If you are struggling to see this, try squinting as this enables you to see colour values (darkness/lightness) more clearly. It's often best to start painting the sky and then work downwards, especially with pastels, as the aim is to build up layers of pigment on the page. Also, pastels shed so much dust that you run the risk of ruining your work if this accidentally shed on to painting that you have already done.



In fact, it's often better to save the blues for highlights. In Reflections of Autumn, featured above, the shade of the trees created a deep green colour for the water, so this was used as the main underpainting.

Fixing Your Work

Now, I know I'm always banging on about the fact that professional pastel artists don't fix their paintings. Well, it's a case of 'Do as I say, not do as I do'. The only time I will use fixative on a piece of work is between layers of pigment, especially if I'm using a very dark pastel as underpainting, such as the deep green in 'Reflections'. and then, I would only use it very sparingly.

How I Painted Reflections of Autumn

Firstly I painted the sky, including the orange and warm hues created by the sun shining through the mist. Then I painted the far distant trees using a muted grey green. in fact, a colour just two tones lighter than the base layer of the river.

Next I worked on the copper foliage on the right of the picture, still using muted colours in the rear, although keeping the warm tones. then put in the tree trunks, before layering leaves over them in stronger tones, to suggest perspective.

I kept areas of sky showing through the trees. If you accidentally go over these, don't panic. You can simply add them in again using the same colour pastel as you used for the background sky. In this respect, working with pastels is a little like working with oils or acrylics in that you don't have to preserve areas of plain paper to create white pigment, and you can work over your mistakes.

The next section I worked on was the river itself, blocking in the dull, deep green of the water, before lightly spraying it. Whilst this was drying thoroughly, I put in the darker trees to the left of the painting.

Once I completed these, I took a very dark green pastel and put in all the darkest shadows in the trees on the left, and along both riverbanks.

Painting Reflections on Water

Next - the fun part! The river at this point was a dull sludge green, so starting at the back I put in all the highlights, directly mirroring the colours in the sky, but WITH ONE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCE - when painting reflections on water, you should choose a pastel a tone or two darker than the tones in the sky/surrounding foliage. So, we can see that some of the blue tones in the water (those to the front of the painting) are really quite a deep blue/violet.

Water looks challenging to paint, but it is in fact, quite simple. Let the pastels suggest all the reflections for you. Let the pigment do the work.

I would suggest starting with something simpler than this piece, as it took several weeks to complete, otherwise, give it a try. Painting water is easier than you think.

Stover Frozen Over

Stover Frozen Over

Here's another example of water painted with pastels. In this case the water is, green, brown and deep purple. And note how the frozen lake is much darker than the blue sky, again with paler hues towards the horizon and darker to the foreground.



Mara Alexander from Los Angeles, California on February 28, 2015:

Great hub, I love paintings, and trying to paint. I will be trying this soon.

Voted up

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on May 01, 2012:

Thanks manna in the wild. It's a good word, cockling isn't it? Specifically the type of srinkling that paper does when exposed to water. Watercolourists struggle with cockling a lot, especially if they don't stretch their paper first. Pastels can certainly be awkward and there are times when I wonder if I should switch to something more manageable, but I like a challenge!

Manna in the wild from Australia on April 30, 2012:

I like using oils and pencils, and looking at the results of skilled pastel-work. Pastels and me don't get on well! But you certainly have a mad skill, and a great way of conveying tips. I even learned a new word: 'cockling'.

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on April 11, 2012:

I think you're right. We're all trying to convey something with a bit of 'heart'.

Dbro from Texas, USA on April 10, 2012:

Thanks, Georgina! I will do the same from my side to yours. So much of what it takes to create good art is universal, isn't it? The techniques may vary from one medium to another, but the goals are usually very similar.

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on April 10, 2012:

Thank you, Dbro. I'd advise anyone reading to hop on over to your profile to see some of the lovely watercolours you have.

Dbro from Texas, USA on April 09, 2012:

Excellent hub, Georgina_Writes! I am a watercolor artist, but I found much of your advice very applicable to my medium as well. Thank you for sharing your expertise! The artwork shown in your hub is fabulous!

Chris Achilleos on April 04, 2012:

Very useful tips to paint water, the images are great. Voted up and useful!

Angelo52 on April 04, 2012:

Useful, well written hub. Your water paintings look good also. Voted up.

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