Drawing water with Paper

updated on
Related topics

Techniques for drawing water and waves using the app Paper on iPad.

Hopefully the previous tutorials in my Mastering Paper guide demonstrated how easy drawing trees and skies on an iPad can be. Building on those techniques, I’m going to walk you through my process of drawing water and waves — perfect for beach and coastline illustrations!

If you enjoyed how I draw clouds, the following should be familiar territory since I use similar techniques. Let’s get started…

Mixing the water

When choosing a color for the water, I like to mix it dull and gray by knocking the saturation down1. I find this helps arrive at a better base color and contrasts nicely against a bright blue sky. But don’t let this mix limit your creative vision, make it any color you want.

screenshot of blue-gray water color mix

ProTip: start light

Don’t make the mix too dark. You’ll achieve better results by applying multiple lighter coats instead of going at it with one. Mix the desired color1 you’d like to end up with and then lower the saturation and luminosity about 25% each.

Much like drawing skies, you can choose to mark a horizon line in pencil to act as a guide — or go commando if you’re confident in your watercolor skills. If you decide to draw the horizon, remember to keep it light so it doesn’t bleed through the watercolor we’ll be applying next.

ProTip: smart cover ruler

An iPad smart cover placed on the screen can be used as a straight edge for drawing lines if you don’t have a ruler handy.

using an iPad smart cover as a ruler

Base coat for the water

With our blue-gray mixed and ready, select the watercolor brush and paint a slow and even stroke to make up this first layer of water. Just like painting skies, you’re trying for an even application of watercolor without lifting your stylus or finger off the iPad’s screen. Work your stroke from top to bottom, left to right, overlapping the previously painted portion slightly. A slow stroke with a slight zig zag to it will aid in painting an even and homogeneous tone quickly.

screenshot of water with a layer base coat

Start with 2–3 even coats filling in the water with as smooth a tone as you can. Depending on how many wave troughs there will be, you may have to gradually fade the tone as you move down. The water I’m painting in this example is fairly flat, so keeping the tone smooth throughout is the goal here.

screenshot faded blue water with two coats

In the photo reference to the right you'll notice the water is darkest at the horizon and gradually fades down — that's the effect you're looking to replicate by increasing the speed of your stroke as you approach the bottom.

ProTip: dark to light

Applying multiple coats adjacent to the horizon line and lightening as you work down will add dimension to the painting. Fading into the paper will also give you more flexibility later if you decide to add a beach or coastline.

Adding wave chop

For the sake of this tutorial I’m going to draw small waves using quick and choppy watercolor brush strokes. The technique is very similar to painting clouds using white, only in this case we’re using the same color we painted the water’s base with. The waves I’m painting are fairly flat so there’s no need to go overboard with the chop.

screenshot of watercolor wave chop technique

ProTip: use tints to lighten

If you go too dark, just mix white into your base coat color. Continue adding white until you get a color that has a hint of the base and lightens the water as you paint. It might take trial and error to find this “sweet spot.”

screenshot of watercolor wave chop lighten technique

An example of lighter wave chops for those areas you may have painted too dark.

Under painting large waves

Depending on the intensity of the waves this next step can be omitted. For larger waves with a lot of white foam, I like to paint a few more layers of blue anywhere these waves appear. The more layers, the darker the blue — the darker the blue, the higher the contrast there will be between the white wave foam we’ll be adding next…

wave photo reference photo

Using this photograph as reference, look for the large white areas of a wave and “underpaint2” there.

screenshot of underpainted waves in dark blue

Waves, it’s in the details

With a solid foundation set, it’s time to add the finishing spit and polish to our waves. Select the pencil tool and fill it with the same blue we used to base coat the water. It doesn’t have to be an exact match if you didn’t save the color in your palette, just something close is all that’s needed.

Starting at the top of the water lightly sketch strokes from left to right. The severity of each wave will determine the direction and angle of these pencil lines — the larger the wave, the greater the angle.

screenshot of wave lines using the base color

Use a blue-gray base color to draw in the smaller wave shapes.

A Pogo Connect Smart Pen works great for this step. It allows you to draw lightly and avoid going too heavy in an area. If you’re finger painting or using a normal capacitive stylus, remember to move quickly with your pencil strokes — the quicker you draw the lighter the mark.

White wave crests and foam

Crests or areas where waves might be crashing against land I go heavy with a white pencil and try to make it textured and scratchy. Criss-crossing or hatching my strokes is one way of doing this quickly. If you remember my guide on painting clouds, the technique is the same.

screenshot of wave foam zoomed in

Draw wave crests and foam using a white pencil.

screenshot of finished wave foam

Depending on the size of the wave crests it’s usually easier to lightly paint in some highlights using a watercolor brush filled with white. Quickly dabbing or painting in short circular bursts will allow you to gradually lighten an area, without destroying the blue base coat beneath.

screenshot of crashing wave white areas using watercolor and white

Dabs of white can cover an area much faster than the pencil tool when filling in large shapes.

Adding shadows to the waves

To add in shadows use a variation of the water’s base color, mixed with 20–40% black. Apply the same technique used above but with this darker color instead of white. Focus on putting a few pencil strokes of dark adjacent to the white strokes which will add depth to the waves. As always, if you over work an area just rewind or draw over it using white if it’s a shadow, and a shadow color if it’s white.

screenshot of wave shadow color mixture

A pencil mixed with a dark blue-gray is perfect for refining edges and adding definition to smaller waves.

screenshot of wave shadows drawn in pencil

screenshot of wave shadows drawn in pencil

Boom! And we’re done. Combined with a blue sky from my previous guide and you’ll have a landscape that looks like you drew it with traditional art supplies. Shhhhh…your secret is safe with me.

Variations on a theme

Using all of these techniques I was able to create a variety of backdrops for the portraits in my PaperFaces Project. Below are a few finished waterscapes to show what is possible by varying the color and composition.

paperfaces andrewbrewer twitter

paperfaces sbrolins twitter

paperfaces bradersk8r twitter

Portait of Iron Man in hero pose on water

paperfaces agentkyle twitter

paperfaces jamesonroot twitter

The next part will include techniques for drawing various textures with Paper’s tools. Things like wood grain, brick, asphalt, and concrete will all be covered to round out the landscape portion of this guide.

  1. In Part 1 of my Mastering Paper Guide I explain how to use the color mixer and what the various sliders mean and do.

  2. Underpainting is an initial layer of paint applied to a ground, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint.

About the author

Hi I’m Michael Rose. Just another boring, bearded, tattooed, time traveling designer from Buffalo New York. I maintain several open source projects and occassionally blog.

Glitched photo of Michael Rose with a long beard.



  1. Mudz69 wrote on

    Thanx for spending your time on this, it’s informative and good fun to have a go at!

  2. Ken Burke wrote on

    Wanted to add my thanks, too! What great resource for the community! Looking forward seeing you continue to expand on the great work you’ve already done.

  3. Mark wrote on

    Thank you for the great tutorials. I really appreciate you taking the time to teach.

Comments are closed.