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Water Features - General Advice

by Andy Slater

Let's face it, we humans have a fascination with water however you don't see model water features all that often because people are afraid to have a go. This only serves to make it more appealing. A further attraction, in a wargaming environment, is that bodies of water are very interesting from a strategic point of view. Most troops/vehicles can only cross at specific points e.g. bridges and fords, yet they provide no cover from ranged weapons which can be fired across them.

It has to be said that water features are not the easiest pieces of terrain to make and there are two reasons for this. The first is that the 'water' itself is only one part of the terrain piece and needs to be surrounded by rocks, plants, etc. Thus is makes more sense for beginners to make a few of those before attempting to combine them with water. The second problem is the nature of water itself and that is what this article attempts to address.

Observing Real Water

As I write this I am lucky enough to be able to see a river from my window. I'm about a quarter of a mile from the sea and the river is about 100 feet wide at this point. There are boats moored along it and it has to be dredged fairly regularly. Because of this I know that the river is probably about 25 feet deep.

Now we all know that water is clear, but I've never seen the bottom of this river and indeed I can't see very deep into it even if I stand at the edge where it's relatively shallow. This is largly because of the amount of light being reflected back from the surface. As I look at it now, it is mostly a light blue/grey colour; the same colour at the sky. The sky is that colour today because there is solid cloud and it is raining. This has an additional effect on this river: there is a lot of silt being carried downstream so today the water is not clear, it's is a caramel brown colour.

There are two other observations that I would like to relate:

The first is that the sky is not the only thing being reflected in the water. In the middle of this 100 foot wide river I am seeing the reflection of the sky but at the edges I see reflections of whatever is on the bank. Where the bank is earth the river appears dark brown, where there is grass the river has a green tint, and where the red boat is moored up...

The second thing I need to be aware of is that the river is moving. It's flowing slowly downstream. It's not windy at the moment and no boats have been past in the last few minutes so there is a steady undulation as opposed to waves, chop, or ripples. It is raining however so the impact of the raindrops is creating little 'sparkles' in the water. Any movement on the bank or in the sky also affects the light hitting the water creating additional 'movement'.

Of course other water features may be entirely different but hopefully my description of this one is sufficient for me to be able to persuade you that there are three elements that make up the appearance of the river: colour, reflection and movement.

So how do we model this?

Hopefully you're with me on the attributes of colour, reflection and movement, and I will now deal with those in reverse order:


Pretty much all water 'moves'. Even the calmest pond will have ripples created by the movement of animals and plants blowing in the breeze. Movement on the banks and in the sky will also be reflected in the water causing the appearance of movement if it isn't actually moving itself.

Unfortunately we cannot recreate this movement in a physical model. It can be done with computer effects but that is of little interest to physical model makers like ourselves. Neither is it possible to use real water. We humans need water to survive but it can also be pretty dangerous to us so recognising it is kind of instinctive. We are not easily fooled and real water on a scale model just doesn't look right.

So we give up? Well as far as the movement is concerned, yes. Make your water feature and photograph it. If it looks real in the photograph then give yourself a pat on the back and tell anybody who says you've sold yourself short to go jump in a lake.


After the bad news about the movement, the good news is that reflection is relatively easy to deal with. If you are using paint to create your river then all it really takes is a coat, perhaps two, of gloss varnish right at the end. If you are using resin, because you want more depth, then the resin itself will probably be shiny enough. If not then use varnish on top when it's dried.

There are other methods of creating 'water' using sheets of glass, plastic, sculpting them with clay, crumpled cellulose for waterfalls, nylon fishing line for fountains, and many other things. In pretty much all cases you can make them shinier with an application of gloss varnish if they don't shine enough on their own. Note however that the key to getting a good finish with varnish is to let it dry where there is no chance of fluff, dust, pollen, insects or anything else landing on it while it is still wet. Fortunately we terrain makers are usually dealing with relatively small areas that are easy to cover with a cardboard box, food covering tent, or any number of other things that will prevent our finish from being ruined.

The most important thing to remember about reflections however is that making the surface of you model water reflective is only part of the story. How effective it will be is going to depend on what it reflects.

Most bodies of water are found outside and a large part of their appearance is due to them reflecting the colours of the sky. Your model will usually live inside so unless you have a glass roof on your house you can't rely on reflections alone to make it look like a real lake or river.

As with the movement, it's probably best to take your piece outside, photograph it, and give yourself a pat on the back if it looks good. You can however improve it's appearance on the table with paint. The real river outside my window is silty brown coloured. The blue/grey is being reflected from the sky. I could paint the water on my model with brown gloss and take it outside, or I can paint the blue/grey on to it so that it looks good inside.

Another thing to remember is that real reflections and shadows on a scale model are not intense enough to look 'correct'. That's why we paint shadows and highlights onto our models. Similarly we cannot rely on the reflective qualities of our model river to reflect enough of the model banks to look good. We can improve the model using washes, prior to varnishing, to colour the 'water' according to what is next to it on the bank. Note however that if overdone this will cause the model to look significantly better from some angles than it does from others.


Shallow water can be clear enough that we can see the bottom of the river/pool in the areas where it is not being obscured by surface reflections. This is best modelled with resin. Deep clear water will appear almost 'black' in most circumstances because there won't be enough light reaching the bottom for us to be able to see it. Water can also be brown if it's loaded with silt or green if it's full of algae. It can also be white it it has lots of air in it e.g. where it's being stirred up by a waterfall or crashing waves.

That of course is the 'basic underlying colour' of the water and by now it should be apparent that most of the colour that we see in real water is coming from the surface reflections of things around it and that we need to paint this into our model water to compensate for the artificial environment in which our model will be used/displayed. Thus we need to add 'sky colours' to the central areas and 'bank colours' at the edges.

In Conclusion

Good looking water features are more difficult to achieve than other types of terrain but only because a) the water needs 'a surrounding' so you need to have acquired the skills to make that first, and b) because you need to be realistic about what is and is not possible to achieve. Having said that, water features are probably one of the most interesting and intriguing types of model terrain that you are likely to encounter so it's well worth having a go.

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