I get asked this question a fair amount, and I have some really helpful thoughts to get us on the right track. Check out my tutorial, "How to paint water with confidence" to explore the ideas in full, but for now lets chat about a few of the important things we need to do before we can go any further.
Like every complex system we can start by ignoring the details and asking some helpful questions...
Asking ourselves these questions can help provide us with some very easy information that can take us 80% of the way to painting the water with ease. And if we get stuck with one question, we can just step aside and answer the rest. For just a second, lets ignore the surface level detail and think only about the big broad ideas.
Art is about communicating... so what are we communicating? It might be the thrill of an energetic waterfall, or perhaps the still of a pond. The serenity of a stream or the life that its teaming with. Whatever first brought me to wanting to paint is my guide for what I am trying to communicate.
what are the Major gradients?
If I broke this into a 3 or 4 shapes, what would they be?
What is the color of the sky reflection? What is the color of the body of water? (We'll chat more about these later) can these colors be described as a single color or in a gradient?
Is the Fresnel effect in play?
and, finally, what are the major forms? (We'll chat more about this later) If we are painting from life we need to choose how to communicate moving water, what shapes and forms are occurring that best describe that? If we don't know, then we need to at least decide on a common pattern
Once we have these questions answered we can start to take a critical look at how Water acts, how to construct forms, receive shadows, develop reflections and communicate some of the nitty - gritty... but we'll get to more of that later.
Check out the full tutorial here!