Water is a complicated structure. It is transparent, and despite it being so clear, we can see it somehow. And even in its most "normal" state, liquid, water has many forms, so different from each other. Although water looks so simple—and is simple in its construction—you can't learn how to paint it once and for all. It's because you don't really paint water, but the effect it has on the world seen through it.
In this tutorial you're going to learn how to render liquid water in many forms: drops, lakes, puddles, rain, and waterfalls. I'll show you how to use a variety of Adobe Photoshop tools to accelerate the process of painting. I'll also explain the rules behind all of these, so that you can modify my examples to your needs. The most important lesson from this will be how to use filters to create all the textures you need in a few seconds.
This is a continuation of the Paint Frozen Water tutorial and some of those tricks will be used here too, so make sure to check it out.
1. Paint a Water Drop
Before we start, let's take a look at what the effect we want is about:
- The light source: its direction is crucial here.
- The highlight: it makes the distinctive shiny dot in the front of the drop.
- The specular shadow: you can see the highlight because it's reflected instead of being let inside. That's why we have a shadow under it.
- Secondary reflection: the rest of light that was let in gets reflected outside.
- Cast shadow: because the light inside gets reflected, it's not cast here, hence the shadow.
Because a water drop is also a lens, it may focus bright light and let it into the cast shadow.
The natural state of a group of water particles is a sphere. However, because of gravity, we observe it as a flattened dome. It also means it changes in perspective: from an oval top view (1) to a dome side view (2).
going to paint a water droplet with a method that will let you reuse it
for as many drops as you wish. Feel free to modify my method to create
the effect you like the most.
First, get yourself a background (for example this leaf texture; make the canvas not wider than 600 px), and draw an oval with a hard brush on a New Layer.
Double-click the layer to access the Layer Style. Set the Fill Opacity to 0 to make the droplet transparent.
Check Bevel & Emboss. This is going to create the shadow on the front and light on the back of the droplet.
- Play with Depth (1) and Size (2) to fit both shadow and light inside the drop without making them sharp.
- Set the Angle to the direction of the shadow (3).
- Change the Gloss Contour to Gaussian (4).
- Set the Highlight Mode to Overlay to give the light a brighter version of the background (5).
- Play with the Opacity of the Shadow to achieve a natural effect (6).
Check Stroke—it will add a clean border between the inside and the outside.
- The stroke should be almost invisible—play with the size to make it so (1).
- Change the Fill Type to Gradient (3).
- Adjust the Angle to our light source (4).
- Play with the Scale to make the transition soft (5).
- Drop the Opacity if the stroke is too sharp (2).
Check Inner Shadow—it will add a bit of volume to the droplet.
- Adjust the Angle to that of our lighting (1).
- Play with the settings to place the shadow just by the edges, leaving the center area clean (2).
- Change the Contour to Rounded Steps (3).
- Add a bit of Noise (4).
Check Color Overlay—it's not obligatory, but it will make the drop stand out more.
- Set the Blend Mode to Overlay for good brightness and transparency (1).
- Choose a greenish blue (e.g. #
006372) as the color (2).
- Lower the Opacity until it's barely visible (3), unless you want to have a colored liquid.
Check Gradient Overlay—it will give us the illuminated area on the back of the drop.
- Set the Blend Mode to Screen for brightness (1).
- Change the Angle to point to the place we want to illuminate (3).
- Play with the Scale to place the gradient properly (4).
- Lower the Opacity to make the light visible, but not white (2).
Check Outer Glow—it will imitate the light hitting around the droplet, which is very helpful in case of a dark background.
- Change the Blend Mode to Screen for brightness (1).
- Set the Color to white (4).
- Make it quite small, scattered, and barely visible using the Opacity (2), Noise (3), and Size (5).
Check Drop Shadow—it will create the cast shadow behind the droplet.
- Set its Angle to our lighting (2).
- Play with the Distance, Spread, and Size to create the impression that it's behind the drop, but not under it (3).
- Drop the Opacity to make the shadow more natural (1).
To add even more volume, check Inner Glow.
- Set the Blend Mode to Multiply for darkness (1).
- Set the Color to dark blue (e.g. #
- Set the Source to Center (4).
- Play with the Choke and Size to place the shadow in the center, just where the Inner Shadow ends (5).
- If the effect is too strong, lower the Opacity (2).
we only need to add a dot of highlight on the front of the drop. Create
a New Layer and paint it with a hard brush using pure white.
To make the highlight stand out more, simply check Outer Glow in its Blending Options.
To make both styles easily reusable, open the Styles window (Window > Styles) and click the Create New Style icon with your chosen layer selected.
Now, every time you want to paint a drop, simply:
- Paint the shapes with a hard brush, each on a new layer.
- Apply the style of a droplet by selecting the layer and clicking the style.
- Add a new layer above the previous one and paint a white dot with a hard brush.
- Apply the style of a glow to the dot.
If you want to create a bigger drop, there are two things to remember for you:
- Drops can't be very big, otherwise gravity takes over and destroys their shape. So this picture must be a macro view—with the observer being very small or very close to the scene.
- The magnifying effect of a drop-lens is clearly visible in this view and should be stressed in your picture.
And, of course, the layer style we've created for small droplets must be modified to fit this bigger view.
To create the magnifying effect:
- Duplicate (Control-J) the background.
- Duplicate the drop.
- Put the duplicated background layer between two drop layers.
- Make the Clipping Mask by hitting Control-Alt-G.
- You can additionally cut the outside by selecting the drop (Control-click), inverting the selection (Control-Shift-I) and cutting (Control-X) the redundant part.
Go to Filter > Liquify (or press Control-Shift-X) and use the Bloat Tool (B) to make this part bigger.
2. Paint a Lake or a River
We'll start with the same scenery as in the previous part, where we've set the water level and created the reflection. We should have the background, the clipping mask, and the reflection clipped to it.
Create a New Layer clipped (Control-Alt-G) to the previous one. Fill (G) it with dark brown or gray.
Duplicate (Control-J) the background and drag it over the clipped layers. Clip (Control-Alt-G) it too.
We need to get rid of excessively strong reflections underwater. Double-click the layer and go to the Blend If section. Hold Alt and drag the white arrow far to the left to make the brightest areas transparent.
See? No specular reflections!
Create a New Layer and fill it with the color of the mountains (dark blue). We'll use this layer to give a bluish tint to the water.
Change the Blending Mode of the layer to Multiply and lower the Opacity as you see fit. The less clear the water (the deeper the lake), the less transparent it should be.
Let's come back to the reflection—it's the most important aspect of water. Duplicate it, put it above all the clipped layers, and unclip (Control-Alt-G) it for a moment. Lower its Opacity a little bit, just to see what's behind, and fix it as shown below. Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select the area and drag it when holding Alt to copy. Your goal is to create the illusion that there's just water behind these columns. It doesn't need to be perfect—it only needs to cheat the system, not your eyes.
Clip the layer back. Double-click it and make the dark areas transparent by dragging the whole black marker to the right, and then Alt-drag its right half to the very end.
This effect weakens with distance, so we need to conceal a part of it. Come back to the original reflection and drag it to the top (still clipped). Add the Layer Mask to it (a "camera" icon on the bottom bar of the layers tab) and add a black-white gradient to it—the black part should be in the foreground.
We've got perfectly still water, which isn't very natural. What if we want to add slight ripples to it?
Click the lower of the reflections and go to Filter > Filer Gallery. Select Sprayed Strokes from the Brush Strokes list, change the Stroke Direction to Horizontal and play with the sliders to get the right effect (you may need to resize the picture first, since there's a limit for these settings).
These were subtle ripples. We can make them stronger by adding a pattern, which will make it more believable for a river.
Create a New File; make it rather big. Fill it with any color, double-click it and add Satin (of the set Patterns) as the pattern. Then select it all (Control-A) and copy (Control-Shift-C).
Paste the pattern to our main file. Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust it to the perspective—the pattern should be the thickest in the background and the biggest in the foreground. Control-drag the corners to adjust them separately.
The pattern looks a bit too regular. You can use the Patch Tool (J) to fix it—simply select an area with the tool and drag it to a place you want to have copied. No need to be perfect!
Use the same pattern once again to make the background even denser.
Use the Layer Mask and a soft brush to blend the background into the rest.
Merge (Control-E) both ripple-layers and clip them.
Of this ripple-layer, we want only white to be visible—black should be transparent. Do you remember how to achieve this effect? (Hint: double-click...).
Change the Blending Mode to Overlay and enjoy the effect.
The bright ripples in the shadow may look as if they are reflections on the bottom—if you want to go for this effect, erase the ripples from the columns' base.
Water is very reflective—it literally works like a mirror. It means it also reflects strong light all around. Our scene isn't the best example for it (the light source isn't reflected here), but I'll try to show you how to get the illusion of light reflected by ripples.
Create a New Layer and use the Rectangle Tool (U) to draw a rectangle. Put the Satin pattern on it.
Right-click the layer and Rasterize Layer Style. Change its Blending Mode to Overlay, and then use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust the rectangle to the perspective. You can also use the Warp mode to break the regularity of the pattern.
When you're ready, use the Layer Mask to blend the rectangle into its wall.
If the effect is too weak, duplicate (Control-J) the layer.
Use the same method for the other column.
We can also give a sort of "thickness" to the water by adding the Filter > Filter Gallery > Distort > Glass filter.
If you want to paint a deep lake, with the bottom far from the observer, the bottom will not be visible. Instead, use a dark blue, green, or brown as the color of the water, with no "background" visible underneath.
Big ripples, as we've used before, may not work well here. Let's try a different method. Create a New Layer clipped to the water area and fill it with black. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Then use Filter > Blur > Motion Blur with 0 Angle.
Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Plastic Wrap to create small ripples. Then use the Free Transform Tool to adjust the perspective.
Set the Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity.
3. Paint a Puddle
Again, we need the background and the reflection. Create a New Layer and use the Lasso Tool (L) to sketch the puddles.
Fill the shapes with brown, and then lower the Opacity, so that the bottom is slightly visible.
Put the reflection above the layers, and then click the puddle-shapes layer while holding Control—it will select them. Then invert the selection (Control-Shift-I) and Delete the outside. (We're not using the Clipping Mask, because the puddles are half transparent and so would be the reflection).
Just like we did with the lake's reflection, we need to make the dark parts of the reflection transparent.
Again, we need to apply Fresnel effect to the reflection. Use the Layer Mask for that.
Let's disturb the surface a little bit, using the Filter > Filter Gallery > Distort > Glass filter.
Duplicate (Control-J) the puddle shapes and put the layer above all the layers. Change its Fill to 0, and then double-click it to play with the settings. The actual values depend on the dimensions of your picture, but just keep in mind that the goal is to create a slight shadow inside...
... and a brighter edge outside.
4. Paint Light Rain
Create a New Layer. Fill it with black, and then Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to extend the borders of the rectangle.
Go to Filter > Pixelate > Crystallize. Use the Free Transform Tool again to move the noise away from the foreground.
Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur to create real drops out of this chaos. Change the Blending Mode to Screen to remove the black background.
Use the Layer Mask to clean the drops off the columns.
Again, create a new noise layer.
Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Dry Brush.
If the dots are too weak, use the Levels editor (Control-L) and drag the right marker far to the left.
Use the Motion Blur again to create the falling drops.
Let's disturb the surface of the puddles with light drops. Make sure all the background (ground, columns, sky, and puddles) is merged. Then grab the Soft Round brush, go into Quick Mask Mode (Q) and paint an oval on the puddle.
Hit Q once again to go out of the mode, and then Invert the selection (Control-Shift-I). Go to Filter > Distort > Twirl and play with the angle to get the right effect.
Repeat for other areas. To make it faster, you can create a New Action. Paint the oval in the Quick Mask Mode, and then press Record and do the following:
- Press Q
- Press Control-Shift-I
- Press Control-F (apply last used filter)
- Press Control-D
- Press Q
Use this action when you paint the oval, and then keep on painting.
5. Paint Heavy Rain
Here's a surprising fact: we don't really know what rain looks like. Seriously. In our mind we usually picture it as tons of drops falling all around, but that's not what we actually see. If you don't believe me, just create a "rain brush" and spray it all over the picture. It just doesn't work like this! Raindrops move too fast and there are too many of them for our eyes to notice all of them at the same time—even cameras have problems with it.
Therefore, whatever we paint, it will be just a approximation—a painting of impression rather than an observable occurrence. We need to focus on what rain does to the scene instead of painting the raindrops, because we don't see the raindrops.
The sky is too clear for our heavy rain. Add more clouds, for example by using a stock photo. Adjust it to the background by using the Layer Mask.
Open the Window > Adjustments window and click the first icon. Put this layer on the top and adjust it, so that the whole picture gets dark and gloomy.
Use the Soft Round brush to paint thick rain in the background.
Use the Soft Round brush with low Opacity to make the other column mistier.
Make the puddles darker, too. You can use the Curves (Control-M) editor for it.
There will be too many drops to create ripples individually for them, so let's ripple them with a filter instead. Go to Filter > Filter Gallery and experiment with Distort > Glass and Artistic > Plastic Wrap.
Merge (Control-E) all the layers, and then duplicate it. Use the Layer Mask to select the first column. (If you want to see what you're painting in this mode, press \).
Go to Filer > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Plastic Wrap. Use it to imitate water flowing on the walls.
Use the Layer Mask to make the water on the darker side more transparent.
Do the same for the other column.
We're going to make the ground wet and shiny. Create a New Layer and fill it with any color, double-click it and add Satin (of the set Patterns).
Right-click the layer and Rasterize Layer Style. Then, just like we did with the lake, adjust the pattern to the perspective with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T), by dragging its corners when holding Control.
Change the Blending Mode to Soft Light. Then double-click it and play with the Blend If settings to make the black transparent.
Use the Layer Mask to clean the overlapping parts.
Create a New Layer. Use the Soft Round brush to draw strong mist in the background.
Change the Opacity to 50%. Use the Layer Mask to remove the columns from the mist.
Merge all the layers except the mist. Right-click its mask and select Apply Layer Mask. Then Control-click it to select its area and use Filter > Blur > Motion Blur with the angle of your rain (your main layer needs to be selected for this). Now the background looks blurry because of all these raindrops, even though we haven't painted any.
Create a New Layer and paint over the other column with a hard brush.
Control-click the white column, and then hide the layer and select the main one. Use the Motion Blur once again, this time with a slightly smaller Distance.
Create a New Layer and fill it with black. Then go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.
Use the Free Transform Tool to stretch the rectangle a bit over the borders.
Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Dry Brush. It will make various fine dots out of the noise. Change the Blending Mode to Screen to see them properly.
Use the Motion Blur filter to create rain out of the dots. You can use the same method with different effects, to make it fit your expectations. Again, rain isn't an observable object, it's a very variable occurrence, and there are many ways to picture it believably. Feel free to use bigger drops, greater blur, or anything you like!
When heavy rain and a puddle meet, an interesting splash appears. In our scenery they won't be very noticeable, but I'll show you how to create a detailed one in case you want to use it for a macro scene.
Create a New File, fill the background with black and add a New Layer. Paint an oval.
Paint a bigger oval above and connect them.
Add a lot of fine dots and lines around.
Lower the Opacity of the layer, and then create a new one and stress only some areas with white. Then delete completely the first layer, Merge Visible and Invert (Control-I) the colors. Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset to save it.
Come back to the main file. Create a New Layer and paint the splashes with your new brush. Remember to adjust their size to the perspective.
To make the splashes more natural, lower the Opacity and/or set the Blending Mode to Overlay. Duplicate the layer to strengthen the effect.
You can add the splashes on the wall that the rain is hitting. To get a proper angle without changing the setting of the brush, just Rotate the view (R).
6. Paint a Waterfall
Just like with rain, a waterfall can be pictured in many ways. Since waterfalls are considered beautiful and they are photographed all the time, there's a good chance your painting will be compared to a photo. The problem is that photographed, fast moving water will look different depending on the shutter speed of the camera. The slow-shutter-speed waterfall is the easiest to render, and that's why this method was used in video games not so long ago—that's also why they looked so bad.
But hey, even modern AAA titles don't have perfect waterfalls, so why is that? Water is an extremely complex subject. Every drop works like a lens, and it takes a significant effort for the computer to render a lens effect. Just imagine what happens when you gather thousands, millions of lenses! That's why a complex waterfall must be broken into a set of "rules" that make it simpler for the computer to handle.
It's the same with painting. There are three ways for you:
- You can paint a waterfall from a reference just as you would anything else—using patches and blobs of color.
- You can create a waterfall out of all the drops, paying attention to every single one of them.
- You can try to find the rules making a waterfall look as it does, and then find a way to re-create them in Photoshop.
Obviously, we'll try the third method! I've modified the scene for this purpose. It may not be your typical waterfall-base, but it will do.
Start by defining the direction of the flowing water. The greater the pressure, the bigger the arch. Pay attention to perspective!
Make sure the background is merged. Go into the Quick Mask Mode (Q) and paint the inside of the sketch.
Press Q once again and invert the selection with Control-Shift-I. Then go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Distort > Glass. This way we'll distort what's beneath the water, just as water would optically do.
Create a New Layer and draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (U). Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise to fill it with chaos.
Now use Filter > Pixelate > Crystallize to gather the tiny dots into clusters.
Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Watercolor to soften the edges. Duplicate (Control-J) and hide it—we're going to need it yet.
Last, go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Brush Strokes > Sprayed Strokes. Use Vertical for Stroke Direction. It should look a bit like water flowing down!
Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust the rectangle to the perspective. Grab the corners when holding Control to drag them individually.
Double-click the layer and change the Blend If settings to make the black areas partially transparent.
You can use the Color Balance editor (Control-B) to make it more bluish.
Duplicate (Control-J) the "water wall" and adjust it to higher layers. You can use the Warp Mode of the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to achieve this.
My waterfall is partially in shadow, so I used the Layer Mask to make the water less shiny in that area.
Reveal the copy of the modified noise. Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Sponge. We're going to make flowing water foam out of this.
Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) in the Warp Mode to curve the rectangle.
Play with the Blend If settings to make the black areas transparent.
Again, use the Layer Mask to adjust the shading.
Come back to the background layer and select the water right beneath the waterfall in the Quick Mask Mode (Q).
Use this selection to put a Filter > Filter Gallery > Distort > Glass filter on it. The river's surface can't be smooth when so much heavy water is falling into it!
Using textures is simple and fast, but they also give a boring, fake feel. We need to add some randomness. That's why we're going to paint more foam manually.
Create a New File and fill the background with black. Paint something chaotic like this. It doesn't need to look the same—most chaotic patterns will work well here.
Invert the colors (Control-I) and Edit > Define Brush Preset.
Change the settings (F5) as shown below.
Use the brush to paint more directional foam. Now, it's all up to you how to use it. The more "curved" the waterfall, the more foam and the less clear water is visible.
Start by adding a lot of foam on the top—it's where water "tries to" flow to the front, but gravity pulls it down.
The water is splashing heavily at the bottom, so add a whole cloud of foam here. Change the size of the strokes all the time—big, almost transparent strokes will work great in the borders.
Foam is also flowing down the waterfall.
If the pressure isn't very high, some water drops will fall down under the main curve.
You can use the Bubble brush from the previous part to add air bubbles here and there.
Let's make the wall under the waterfall properly wet. Select it in the Quick Mask Mode (Q).
Add one of the filters we've used before for distortion, for example Glass.
Finish the picture by adding any details you like. I added a Plastic Wrap filter on the column right next to the waterfall to make it look wet. I also added bigger ripples to the river, as we did with the lake.
Now, there's a chance you don't like this effect. It may just not be compatible with your idea of a waterfall. Let's change the "shutter speed" of our picture and see if you like this other version better.
Basically, slow shutter speed adds nothing more than motion blur. The problem is that the Filter > Blur > Motion Blur filter uses only a single direction, and the waterfall is curved. We need to select it part by part, reducing the selection as the curve increases. Use the Quick Mask (Q) for it.
When it comes to the foam, you can unify it with Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and add more of it with the Soft Round brush.
Better? I hope so!
Fluidly to the End!
In these two tutorials we've taken care of all the forms of water you can imagine. I hope it helps you in your future projects, whatever they may be! But that's not the end—if you want to harness all the elements, in the next tutorial of the series we're going to talk about the forms of fire. See you next time!