How to Paint Water Drops

This is the feature image of the article How to Paint Water Drops

In this article we’re going to look at how to paint water drops.

A few years ago, I translated an article on How to paint water drops. Today we will take a closer look at this. I want to show you how to paint drops of water using a quick and very hands-on approach.

A bit of boring theory?

When light travels through the air and strikes a drop of water, part of it gets reflected at an angle I, equal to the angle of incidence, and part of it will keep traveling through the drop itself, except in this case the angle of inclination is deviated. So we can say that when light goes from traveling through one medium (air) to another (water), it is deviated by reflection or  refraction. Once inside the drop, light keeps traveling until it reaches a far end. Part of it will be refracted outward, at an angle I, and part of it will be reflected at a same angle R. Inside the drop the journey goes on, until it reaches the opposite end from where it got in. Here, once again, a reflection at an angle R and a refraction at an angle I will occur.

Water Drop Refraction

As the ray of light enters the drop at an angle I equal to the drop-to-observer angle, the observer will be able to see a very bright highlight. From the other side, other rays of light will be observed, flowing out from the drop in a milder and more scattered manner. Thus, from an artistic point of view, we already have two important tips:

  1. Where the light gets in, we will see a very bright highlight.
  2.  On the opposite end, we will have a softer and more diffuse light.

This image shows Light travel into a Water Drop

But we’re far from knowing all we need in order to paint the perfect drop of water. As the light travels downward, the area directly beneath the highlight will be left in complete darkness. The central area, being well lighted-up, will be transparent and we will be able to clearly see the color of the background against which the drop is placed. Finally, the drop will behave like any other object in nature: once struck by light, no matter how much of the light will go through the drop, there will still be a shadow on the base on which the drop rests.

This image shows a Water Drop

At this point we have all the information we need in order to paint a drop. Now it’s time to look at how to put it into practice.

We will now look at two simple examples, both oil painted on a normal A4 sheet of paper. The color has been used as it is right out of the tube, so that the oil will be easily absorbed and the paint will dry up quickly. Obviously, A4 paper is not ideal for oil painting, but it will be enough to try out these two simple exercises, which you can perform quickly and cheaply even on a kitchen table. Needless to say, you can try the same technique using acrylics.

How to paint water drops on a green background?

First, let’s prepare the background in a forest green, mixing an ultramarine blue, a cadmium yellow light, and a burnt umber.

This picture shows how to paint, step by step, water Drop on green background

Let’s now create a darker version of the same color by adding more burnt umber to the mix. With this color  we’re going to paint the two darker areas of the drop: the projected shadow and the area directly beneath the highlight. After applying the paint with a flat brush n° 002, let’s get it dry and clean and let’s then blur the edges.

This picture shows how to paint, step by step, water Drop on green background

Now, using a 000 brush we have to paint the highlight and the diffuse light area. Let’s not blend anything off for now. It’s crucial that we DON’T use a pure white. Never paint highlights using a pure white. Always add a tiny tiny amount (almost imperceptible) of the background’s complementary color. Since the background is green, let’s add a tiny amount of red to the zinc white. This red will be a mix of cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, and a bit of sap green, which will dampen the excessive brightness of the red. Please note how in the picture you can see that the red of the highlight isn’t visible at all. But it is there, and let me assure you that this does make a huge difference, making the highlight look much more natural, rather than a simple white spot against a dark background.

This picture shows how to paint, step by step, water Drop on green background

Now, using the flat brush n° 002 again ( dry and clean), let’s blur the diffuse light area. DO NOT touch the highlight , which you should never blur.

This picture shows how to paint, step by step, water Drop on green background

How to paint water drops on a red background?

Using a similar procedure, let’s now paint the drop against a red background. The red is obtained mixing cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, and a bit of sap green.

This image shows How to Paint Water Drop on red background

Once again, let’s create a darker hue of red. This time I added more sap green and a tiny bit of ivory black. With the mix thus obtained, let’s paint the shadow and the shade beneath the highlight. This time, however, the shaded areas are not as dark. If you’re copying from a picture, these darker areas might appear very dark  or maybe not too dark, thus making the drop almost invisible. While copying from a picture, do take these variations into account, so that all your drops don’t look exactly the same.

This image shows How to Paint Water Drop on red background

Let’s now create the mix for the highlight, and again, let’s NOT use a pure white, but rather a white with a tiny amount of green. I used the same green I got to paint the green drop. Let me stress once again just how important it is  that the amount of green should to be extremely tiny, almost insignificant. But by adding a complementary color to the highlight we’ll make sure it won’t look unnaturally white. Using the same color, let’s add a thin stroke inside the diffuse light area.

This image shows How to Paint Water Drop on red background

Let’s now blur the diffuse light area using a flat brush n° 002.

This image shows How to Paint Water Drop on red background

How to paint water drops in a real painting?

The green and red I’ve used for the exercises above are the base colors I’ve also used for my last work, which I’ve just completed and which I’ll show you as soon as I have some better photos. Please note that the principles illustrated above are applicable for a real painting, too. Start with a darker color than the base color of the leaf, and then paint the shade beneath the highlight plus the projected shadow.

This image shows first step on How I Paint a Water Drop on a Leaf

Then with a white mixed with very little red, paint the highlight and the diffuse light area, exactly as illustrated above.

This image shows How I Painted a Water Drop on a Leaf

In this photo you can see a detail of my painting, showing a few droplets of water on a leaf.

This image shows How I Painted several Water Drops on a Leaf

The same droplets have been painted on some grapes. Notice how the color of the shade and of the projected shadow are not as dark here and that the drop is almost invisible set against the grape. I looked for this kind of effect because this is how it looked on the original painting I had in a photo.

This image shows How I Painted Water Drop on Grapes

Here’s another detail of a drop onto a different grape.

This image shows How I Painted Water Drops on Grape

I hope this article will make it easier for you to try and paint your own drops of water. As I said, these techniques will work just as effectively with acrylics. When it comes to watercolors, however, the procedure might be slightly different, as shown on this website, with the only difference that I wouldn’t erase the color to create the highlight. I would rather use some mask liquid.

Credit: the painting in the last 5 photos is my own copy of Grapes by Alexei Antonov from a photo, without follow any tutorial. I learned to paint water drops years ago from Pierre Labeau on Wetcanvas tutorial.


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