Monday, February 6, 2012


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published.)

Granite Tranquility, 18' x 12”

The mysterious mirror image of the world glides over the surface of the water, an elastic likeness that swells and shrinks as the water moves beneath it, an elegant, fluid edge where light and dark diverge. Water’s quiet reflections add refreshing color and sparkle to your paintings.

Pastel is well suited to painting reflections, feathering over many soft, light layers of silken color or finger blending thick, buttery layers to achieve a subdued likeness of the real world.

You must first consider your point of view when painting reflections. How high above the surface you are will determine what you see reflected. Perhaps you remember from your high school physics class that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection. This handy phrase will be of real help when you come to understand how it applies to your painting.

If you paint only what you see and never make changes, your painting will most likely contain believable reflections. However, if you decide to diverge from reality and add a tree over here or delete a hill over there -- something artists do quite regularly -- you need to understand how your perspective affects what is reflected.

Imagine a large pond on a clear, sunny day, with a few clouds floating overhead. Grasses, trees and hills around it. If you are standing at the shoreline or sitting in a boat the angle of incidence will be fairly shallow, allowing you to see a clear reflection of the grasses and trees lining the bank and perhaps the low hills behind. If, on the other hand, you are standing on a hillside looking down into the water, the angle will be much steeper, allowing you to see more of the sky and clouds overhead and little or none of the shoreline details.

As you come closer to the pond or move away from it, the angle of view is affected. The reflection you see depends on your relative distance from and degree above the water line.

To understand more clearly, place a mirror on a table and raise and lower your head, noticing how the reflection changes. As you lower your eye level you can see the items closest to the edge of the mirror’s surface. As you raise your head, creating a steeper angle of reflection, you can see more of the objects that are high above the mirror, even those that are almost directly overhead.

Notice, too, how the objects reflected change as you approach the mirror or back away from it. The nearer you are to the mirror’s edge the higher you can see, and the farther back you are the more you can see the low details along the edge.

Take some time to conduct a few experiments with a mirror to help you visualize your point of view when painting reflections and better appreciate how important it is to identify the angle at which you are seeing them.

Have you ever stood at the edge of a pond and found yourself leaning out over the water to be able to catch a glimpse of the fish and rocks beneath the surface? As you look almost straight down into the water you can see more clearly without much reflection obscuring your view, except perhaps a very pale reflection of the sky above you. Conversely, when you look out at the distant surface of the water in the middle of the pond, you generally see only the sky reflected. The angle at which you view the water’s surface will determine the amount of bottom detail and reflection to paint.

Reflections, subdued by the water, have an otherworldly look. This is partly because all the values shift slightly due to the diffusion of light, as some of the reflected light is scattered.

Acequia's Mirror, 9" x 12"
To accurately show this shift in value, paint light values slightly darker, dark values slightly lighter and middle values close to the same. This means there is somewhat less contrast in the reflection, though the degree to which this is visible depends on several variables.

If the reflection is in still, very clear water that has little or no sediment, the values of the reflection may be nearly identical, with only an incrementally small change. The more sediment there is, the more there is a shift in color and value, whether it is from the whitening effect of glacial runoff, the rich earth colors seen in water stirred up by a current or the tea-like color of water steeped with leaves and bark.

Bear in mind that a photograph will almost always be deceptive, leading you astray by averaging the light, oftentimes resulting in a nearly identical reflection with hardly any shift in values. When you are out on location analyze the reflections you see and notice the slightly muted contrast.

To begin painting still water reflections, first paint the object and then record the local color of its reflection. If the mountain is lavender, it is a good idea to put a touch of the same lavender into the water and if the tree is yellow, add a breath of yellow there. Later in the process you can make it more believable by softly layering, blending or feathering the surface. Begin with a light touch so that you have room to adjust using subsequent layers of color.

To achieve the liquid sheen of a reflection in clear, flat water, try feathering over many layers of pastels. You will need at least three or four light layers in place, already capturing the color, value and shape of the reflection. Then use a pastel pencil or an extra soft thin vine charcoal stick to gently whisk over the surface, as lightly as you would use a butterfly wing while trying not to damage it. A particularly long piece of charcoal will keep you from bearing down too hard and making gray marks in the pastel, although some graying will occur. This can add to the illusion by reducing color and contrast, and is a valuable method to achieve the illusion of still water reflections.

Finger blending is another technique that can be used to create believable reflections. Use a quick stroke downward over several layers of color to get the slightly smeared quality often seen in reflections. If blending on sanded paper, be careful to have a pillow of pastel beneath your finger so that you don’t abrade your skin.

Keep the reflections of upright, vertical objects straight, and make sure leaning objects lean in the same direction. If the tree leans to the right its reflection also leans to the right. Remember that the sky is reflected upside down, too, so blend from light blue at the distant shoreline to dark at the bottom of the page, where the zenith of the sky may be reflected.

To help you paint accurate reflections, turn your painting on its side and compare the alignment of objects with their reflections. Be sure that the reflections are directly below objects -- or in this case, directly beside them. Also keep in mind that all vertical items, across the width of the entire painting, will be reflected parallel to one another if they are parallel in reality. Don’t let your reflections lean needlessly or converge anywhere.

While your painting is sideways, visually compare the length of each object to be sure you have accurately portrayed the length of its reflection. In perfectly calm water, reflections are not elongated, so if the water begins directly at the base of the object its reflection is no longer than the object itself. You must carefully judge the amount you see reflected of anything farther from the shoreline.


In moving water the reflection becomes broken by ripples, which makes it appear somewhat longer than the object. The amount of distortion is determined by the degree of movement in the water. These reflections have a rounded, fluid shape that can be painted by carefully adding pools of light into the dark areas and dark into light areas at the edges of the reflections. Pay close attention to the scale of these strokes, making sure to match them to the relative distance, large in the foreground and successively smaller in the distance.

Moving water can delightfully skew the shape of reflected objects. Tall straight items, such as the mast of a boat, can become a series of liquid loops or circles detached in the water. In Surrounded you can see how the reflection exaggerates the shape of a nearby lamppost until it is virtually unrecognizable.

Botanical Pond, 9" x 12"
One of the delights of painting reflections is that objects can be revealed that may not otherwise be visible in the body of the painting. For instance, in the painting Summer Reflections you can see the clouds overhead reflected in the center foreground, broken by the wet sand. Although the painting has a few distant wisps of clouds behind the mountains, the reflections indicate a white cloud higher overhead.

Objects that are not in the line of sight of the viewer might be seen in reflections, such as the underside of a dock or boat, or the feather patterns of a duck. For instance, the details of a tree branch that reaches out over the water may be visible, showing the leaf patterns and colors reflected in the water. Bright fall reeds or hillsides covered with colorful trees may be evident only as reflections.

To envision how to paint gentle, reflective ripples on a lake, think of the ripple as having a little mirror on each side. There are basically two reflective shapes, the front and back of the ripple, with the front side pointed toward you and the back pointed away. However, keep in mind that each mirror is supple and bends in all directions easily, curving and shaping reflections fluidly.

The ripple will reflect objects in essentially three different ways, depending on how far out in the water it is. In open water, in the center of our imaginary pond, the ripple will reflect two distinct areas of the sky, perhaps varying only slightly in color. This might be a reflection of the sky near the horizon and at the zenith, so it may be pale blue and slightly darker blue.

As the ripple nears the overhanging trees it will reflect the green of the tree on one side and the blue sky on the other side. The sky color depends on what portion is reflected, and different ripples may reflect slightly different parts of the sky, so be sure not to make these a uniform blue.

As the ripple comes under the tree branch it will begin to reflect only the tree. Perhaps one side will reveal the dark of the trunk and branches while the other reflects the lighter green of the leaves. Pay close attention to these fluid reflections and consider what is being seen in the mirrors of the ripples.

If you are painting a larger body of water that is moved by the wind and has a broken surface, notice that the ripples in the near water are farther apart and larger. They recede into the distance to form a pattern or texture that looks much like tweed. Use small dashes of the characteristic colors to create the illusion of windblown water, noticing the amount of reflected color you see there.


Shadows and reflections are independent of one another. As you walk around your imaginary pond, notice that the dead tree protruding from the middle casts a shadow that remains stationary but the reflection shifts to follow you. Stroll around until the view pleases you. Compose with this in mind.

Poblanos Reflections, 18" x 12”

When there is a shadow cast directly over the surface of the water one of two things will happen. Sometimes the shadow will darken the water, obscuring all reflections and darkening the entire area. When this occurs, paint the shadow colors in the water locally without any reflections. A shadow becomes particularly dark when there is a lot of sediment coloring the water, making it somewhat opaque. Take care not to rely on a photograph, since it will frequently over-darken the shadow.

Far more often a shadow cast over clear water allows you to see under the surface, breaking the reflection so that you can make out the bottom.


When you can see into the water, begin with the bottom layer, painting anything beneath the surface -- rocks, plants, fish, mud or sand. Do not neglect to paint the shadows cast by objects in sunlight under water.

Next paint anything you see on the surface of the water. This includes reflections, ripples, sparkles or shadows.

Then paint anything that is on top of the water, including dry rocks or reeds that protrude, logs, leaves, foam or anything else floating there, such as a boat or duck. Basically, paint from bottom to top layers, noting the local color of each object. The final addition of little touches such as tiny ripples where a rising fish disturbs the surface, or where the water bubbles over a submerged rock, completes the illusion.

When a reed or stalk of grass protrudes from the water you will see a slight change in direction of the stalk itself. This is because light bends when it enters the thicker water, moving more slowly there. The result is a little jump in direction, seen directly at the surface of the water. Be sure that the color of the reed beneath the water is somewhat darker to give the illusion of it being submerged. Its reflection in the water can be a pleasant surprise, a satisfying convergence of directions.

Puddles can also add an appealing dimension to a painting. Place a puddle in a low spot on the ground to reflect an area of particular interest. Puddles are so shallow that you see the color of the dirt showing through, influencing the color of the reflection, which can appear very delicate and pale.

Whether you paint a puddle or a pond, an inlet or a lake, take some time to study reflections. Use layering, feathering and blending to make soft, still water reflections, or precisely execute the sharp, liquid reflections of rippled water. Carefully consider your angle of view and how this affects reflected objects, and then let the beautiful, fluid world of reflections enhance your paintings.

Loose Reflections, 12" x 18”