Pen and Ink Drawings of Water

Pen and Ink Drawings of Water
Pen and Ink Drawings of Water

Water is a force of nature that can move mountains if it's given a chance. To draw water using watercolor, or pen and ink drawings, a simple process follows a few easy to follow rules. This instructional guide will give you a clear idea of what it takes to draw water and the different movements it makes.


When you were a kid in school, it seemed easy to draw some wavy lines for drawing water. But that's only part of the story since you need to focus on the bigger picture. Drawing water depends on the depth and the angle that the water is flowing. Even if it's a free-standing pond or lake, there is still some movement from the elements such as wind. I will walk you through the proper steps of drawing calm water realistically.

• Drawing calm water

If you've ever seen a calm body of water in the early morning, you'll notice that this water looks like a mirror. Depending on the angle you look at the water, the images you see over the top of the water will reflect anything on the opposite side. Just like a mirror, these images can appear crystal clear, or they can be slightly distorted. This is because all water can have slight movement, even from a light breeze.

Gather pictures of calm water to get ideas of how a reflective surface works. You will then need to consider if your water is moving or not. Where is the location that your water is located? Keep in mind that soft little waves of water will distort how an image looks. For example, a tree reflected on the water follows a reverse image across the surface. If the water is moving ever-so-slightly, there are slight curves seen bending and waving the image of a tree.

• How to draw subtle water movement

If you can draw a wavy line that looks like a snake slithering on the ground, you're already getting a good idea for water movement. Water, like every other liquid, is pushed by something that causes its movement. It has an internal mass that follows a path and can be seen on the surface due to movement on or within the water itself. Drawing movement all starts with wavy lines that are drawn at angles.

These angles do depend on the level of movement that can be seen. If this is supposed to be calm water with little movement, these lines also need to be softened with a blending stick. There can also be a shadow line that shows how rounded a surface wave is looking. This shadow line is placed underneath a wavy line and is 3x lighter than the wavy line.

Depending on how far below you add a shadow line, it gives you an indication of the softness of that water surface under the wavy line. Pen and ink watercolor drawings all contain different aspects of how subtle water movement is portrayed.

• Drawing water ripples

Once again, you need to study how different soft ripples look when water is disturbed on the surface. Soft ripples do need to follow a natural flow wherever the movement is coming from. If this is from the lazy movement of a creek and water is flowing over rounded stones on the creek bed, the surface water will show rounded hump lines. These also need to be shadowed correctly.

• Adding shadows

Shadows drawn with a pen or ink aren't so easy to blend unless you use a very light touch. Using a pen that has a very fine line helps to keep shadows looking natural. To some extent, it will be possible to blend away these shadows with a blender stump. A suitable method for making shadows is using a technique called hatching'‘. This is achieved by drawing faint lines closely together where a shadow should go.

Heavier shadows have lines running in opposition to the first set of hatching lines. This is called ‘cross-hatching' and looks similar to tiny little ‘X' lines where shadows appear. If watercolor is used, then these shadows can be more subtle and softer looking. Watercolor pens are very nice since a wave line can be softened using a watercolor brush to smooth-out a ripple or soft and wavy surface line.

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Whenever the edge of the water is seen at a beach or on a lake, noticeable differences are apparent. At the beach, waves are formed by winds and water currents. These show how much the water is creating waves at the shore. Lakes don't show this so often unless it's a windy day. Rivers and creeks react differently since both sides of a flowing body of water react from the gravity and flow of that water.

Regardless, the edge of water will show movement that needs to be captured in your drawing. While you don't need to be an expert in how gravity works, water does react to objects at the edge when it washes onto or over them. Take care to look at real places in nature that show what is happening at the water's edge. You can use pictures from the internet or take pictures for yourself at local water bodies for reference.

These pictures can be used as a guide when you make your drawing. Depending on the amount of water movement that's shown, this detail needs to be added. The effect of crashing water or waves is then highlighted with water droplets, water spray, or mist that forms. This also depends on how close the water edge appears in your picture. It's equally important to scale down water droplets and splashing water, so it has the appropriate scale in the drawing itself.


Reflections are a little trickier to master since water is transparent. Since it's hard to convey depth, water reflections in shading and color show the illusion of depth. This can include water ripples, shadows, lighter and darker washes of color. When light travels through water, it reflects in very odd-looking patterns on the surface. A great example is how crashing beach waves are drawn.

The light coming through the crest of water is much lighter at the top and grows darker toward the bottom. There can also be a lot that is affecting the water, such as froth or seafoam. It breaks-up into web-like shapes that string through the surface of the water. Creating the right kind of reflections is a matter of light Vs. dark and can often look at time vein-like. This appears as light tendrils that worm their way within moving water.


Too often, we always think of an ocean's image and the violent crashing waves that crash ashore. How about the magnificent white water rapids that work their way through many rivers of America. Not to forget that turbulence in water can also come from the fast currents caused by waterfalls. Mapping this kind of movement is always subject to how detailed you want to make your ink or watercolor drawing.

Fast-moving water has lots of whitecaps and water splashes. While the mist is somewhat harder to reproduce, soft hints of white watercolor can be added in dots, splotches, and soft dry brushing paint methods. Drybrushing is when you have very little water in your watercolor, which is nearly moist with color. If you lightly brush the surface of your picture, you deposit a layer of color on top that is transparent.

This can then be further softened with a clean brush using very light strokes containing a moist brush tip. Very choppy water will have lots of water splashes that fly into the air in random patterns. You can give them further depth by adding little shadowing to make them appear more three dimensional. This can be further added when you use watercolor and ink techniques to paint wild looking water.


• Fineliner drawing pen

You can find all kinds of fine liners drawing pens online that are fine for drawing or sketching. The only problem is that pens are permanent and cannot be blended if you want to make a line softer. If you like the style of drawing with a fine liner pen, then you will love experimenting with Copic Fineline pens. They are pricey but meant for artists who demand a very fine tip.

• Drawing ink

This is not the same as Indian ink and, for this reason, is very similar to watercolor in many ways. Drawing ink is transparent and is applied with a paintbrush. The advantage to drawing ink is the wide variety of colors that can be used. Some artists like to mix these inks into paint and markers to get all sorts of color effects. It can also be thinned with ordinary water. Oddly enough, these inks can be thinned with Isopropyl alcohol and airbrushed onto paper.

• Watercolor pen

If you make a simple drawing using a fine liner pen, watercolor pens make an excellent addition to your drawing tools. These pigments can be applied in general strokes, and then a wet brush can carry this color to the exact spot you want to color in. Artists also love these because they can have watercolor's power without bringing an entire palette with them everywhere.

• Watercolor palette

It goes without saying that having a fantastic watercolor palette is essential for any self-respecting artist. I recommend that anyone starting out uses a watercolor that gives lots of color choices. Not that learning how to mix colors is essential either if you buy a basic primary color set. I've gotten away with buying the cheapest kid's watercolor selling for a couple bucks at the Dollar Store that still looks just as good as the pro kits.

• Watercolor brushes

One thing to remember about paintbrushes is that the quality is what you pay for. Don't buy cheap brushes since they will wear out too quickly. But buying a good variety pack is essential. Look for a Sable brush that is meant for ink and watercolor. Keeping them clean is also just as important after you use them. I recommend that you find a storage case for them that keeps them all together.

• Watercolor drawing paper

Watercolor paper is going to be thicker and make with higher levels of cotton pulp. It will be common to see more texture with this paper, but not always. Because water absorbs differently on different paper types, using paper that is too thin will result in warping when it dries. This happens even more if you used too much water for blending. This is why it's better to use heavier gauge paper that absorbs the water easier.

Final Word

You aren't going to be a master after a couple of days, so learn to take baby steps. When it comes to drawing water, you will need to study everything you can about how the water looks. The closer you get to copy these aspects of reflectivity and transparency, the better your water drawing will look.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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Pen and Ink Drawings of Water