Reflections, whether in water, a window, or the surface of a shiny object, can be surprisingly easy to draw. Yet, we often think of them as difficult and make the work harder than it should be. There are some common pitfalls to be aware of when drawing reflections. The good news is that all of these are avoidable if you simply trust your eyes.

The Challenge of Reflections

Too often, the problem of drawing reflections stems from thinking of the reflection as a discrete set of objects to be drawn. We try to make up rules about drawing thingsand use these shortcuts. So when we see something complex, we think about that thing, rather than the surface.

Suppose a building is reflected; suddenly we’re thinking about perspective and angles. When a person is reflected, we’re drawing people. What happens when there is a flare of light or a ripple across one of those reflections? These distortions that are natural elements of reflections get in our way and the shape we’re trying to draw — the building or person — gets broken up.

The key to drawing reflections with ease is to stop trying to look at each object in your drawing as a separate entity — a tree, a person, a river. Instead, think purely in terms of shapes and values.

While drawing, you are recreating your three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional plane. A drawing is nothing more than a collection of light and dark areas. The more realism you strive for means more accuracy and details are needed in those lights and darks.

Observe the surface that you are drawing, and record the changes of light and dark across it. It’s as simple as that.

Perspective in Reflections

Trying to force perspective effects that don’t really exist is one of the main mistakes made by beginners.

For example, most reflections in water will simply go straight down with no convergence. This will change based on your point of view, but from eye-level, it’s generally true.

Likewise, a shiny building will have one set of vanishing points and the reflection will have its own. Quite often this is perpendicular to the building’s, although it will vary depending on the plane of the window.

Drawing a reflected scene such as in a shop window is another case of observing what is actually there. Don’t try to construct the perspective according to imagined rules. Trust your eyes and record what you see, not what you think should be there.

If you’re drawing from imagination, use a reference photograph of a scene with similar angles as a guide.

Distortion in Reflective Surfaces

Almost every reflection distorts the reflected object. This is very apparent in large windows or those that are slightly off-angle on very large buildings. The distortions may be slight, but they are there and artists tend to want to correct them.

Again, draw what you observe. It might seem odd at first, but in the completed drawing it will make sense and read as a distorting surface.

When shading a reflection, allow your marks to curve around or across the surface of the reflecting object as if it were flat-painted. This ensures that the surface makes sense.

Reflections and Texture

The texture is probably one of the most difficult things to tackle in a reflected surface. Shiny areas reflect the object accurately, while a satin texture creates a veil or pattern across it. You have various solutions depending on the texture.

One is to draw the reflection crisply, as though mirrored. Then break the surface up with additional shading or erasing.

You can also use directly textured mark-making to draw the reflection. Pay attention to edges: are they fuzzy or crisp? A kneadable eraser is useful for lifting out highlights with soft edges, while a sharp-edged white plastic eraser is good for fine, crisp lines.

When line sketching, handle reflections lightly. Use the illustrator’s trick of a few diagonal or squiggly lines to suggest the surface of the glass. You’ve seen this multiple times in cartoons and comics.

Mirror, but Not a Mirror Image

Remember that a reflection isn’t a mirror image from a printing plate. Instead, it is a view from a different angle. This is important because the reflection will often see things that do not appear in the object itself.

In a landscape, for example, you will notice that the reflection reveals a little more of the underside of bridges or the shadow of overhanging plants. A tree reflected in water may have crisply visible branches, seen from underneath the obscuring foliage.

Also, look out for reflected light that brightens both the shadow and its reflection.

Water Is Flat

When sketching reflections in water, remember that water is always a flat, horizontal surface. At times, an angled line may be necessary to describe a ripple or reflection, but use horizontal shading to keep the surface flat.

Beware of carelessly curving your shading in large flat areas. You want to avoid creating a visual bump in the water that simply cannot exist.

Also, be aware of contact shadows. This is where an object contacts the water’s surface and because there is no light reflected there, you will observe a dark line.