| High Tide, Winter | Oil on panel, 9 x 12”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

| High Tide, Winter | Oil on panel, 9 x 12”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

As an artist who paints the coast, water is one of my sources of inspiration. I love being close to it and the changing tides.

The way it changes with the light is mesmerizing, and I’m always looking for better ways to capture that in paint.

But like lots of artists I used to get caught up in some really common mistakes like using the same blue or grey color for the whole area of the water.

And not thinking about the effects of the land and sky on the values and reflections in the water.

Two things got me past all that.

The first is relatively easy but takes time, and that’s observing water so that you understand how it works.

Steamboat Landing, Edisto Island

Steamboat Landing, Edisto Island

I spend a lot of time watching water in all its forms in all kinds of weather.

But what if you’d like to speed that process up?

The second step I took was one a former professor suggested a long time ago. He said for any problem we faced as artists we could find the solution to it in the work of past artists.

To shorten that learning process, look at how other artists in the past have dealt with the problem of creating the illusion of water.

So here are the three key things I’ve learned from artists like Winslow Homer. These three are the most important to translating paint into the illusion of moving liquid.

Winslow Homer,

Winslow Homer, “The Gulf Stream”, ca. 1899, oil on canvas

Flow & Movement

  • The movement in water is determined by the direction of it’s flow
  • The faster the movement, the more ripples and white water there will be and fewer reflections
  • Less movement equals a more reflective surface
Winslow Homer,

Winslow Homer, “Sunset”, ca. 1875, oil on canvas


  • Reflections have lower contrast than what they’re reflecting.
  • Reflections are impacted by perspective
  • Paint reflections down from the source

Color & Value

  • Look for the overall value pattern in the water, the big shapes, and realize they’re connected to the land
  • Include the colors used in the sky and land in the water as well

So where am I now on painting water?

“Spanish Hammock, Summer Storm”, oil, 18 x 24”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Spanish Hammock, Summer Storm”, oil, 18 x 24”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Being in the Lowcountry gives me lots of opportunities to watch and paint the water, from the ocean to meandering rivers, creeks and still swamps.

But looking at how other artists have dealt with those same challenges certainly gave me a head start.

If you’d like to speed up your own skill in capturing the many moods of water, sky and land, I'd love for you to join me in my upcoming live virtual workshop, CLOUD, SKY, LAND & WATER January 27-30. You can check it out by clicking here.


Clouds, Sky, Land & Water: Painting the Southern Coast

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