Skip to content

How to Make a Scale River, Lake, Harbor, or Just about any other body of Water

January 21, 2009

Now that we’ve covered size, shape and color theory of these necessary waterways, let’s move onto the modeling portion of this tutorial.

Our Main Ingredients are the following:


For water, Woodland Scenics has been selling a horrendously overpriced product called “Realistic Water” which is actually just Acryllic Glazing Liquid used for painting light layers of paint on a painting. Learn more about Acrylic glazing liquid here. You can get this stuff by the GALLON for half the price of the bottle of WS product at Blick Art Supply.

This stuff is smelly, but not noxious. I would suggest opening a window if you want to model while you pour this stuff. It takes about 24 hours to dry and ONLY pour in 1/16″ depths. In all honesty, you really don’t need to pour this stuff deep, it looks fine on the surface.


Using color samples directly taken from the river via the satelite photos I posted in my previous article, I came up with this list of “necessary colors”

You can explore the ‘zillions’ of other colors out there; here.

colors to paint a river

The Colors I used to paint the River are mostly from Benjamin Moore’s “Color Sample” paint jars. These 3oz Jars cost about $3-4 and cover a 2X2 foot area if used completely. Yu can get these at a well-stocked hardware store, or a Home Improvement warehouse.
The other colors in the 2oz containers are the $1 craft paints you can get from any craft store.

Colors for Rivers

The Colors Are:
-Dark Green: “Mohegan Sage” (Ben #2138-30)
-Tan: “Monroe Bisque” (Ben# HC-26)
-Sky Blue: “Yarmouth Blue” (Ben#HC-150)
-Dark Brown: “Clinton Brown” (Ben#HC-72)
Craft Paint:
-Navy Blue
-Sand Stone

Optional Regional colors:
for Clay rivers, use “Terra Cotta”
for black use “Asphaltum” (which is a very dark brown. Avoid black at ALL COSTS)

Prepping the Riverbed, Lakebed, or Harbor.

You can approach this two ways:

Deep log pond with algae bloom
1. Involves laying down a flat piece of particle board, adding the riverbanks in, then painting the surface and adding the acryllic glaze, then finally adding ripples with acrylic gloss medium. This is good for wide, deep rivers, harbors, lakes and channels.

River with Sandbars

2. For creeks and shallow or seasonal rivers that vary wildly in depth year-round, or a river that has a lot of sandbars or islands, try this method: (READ MORE) <-Will be written about tomorrow

Painting Technique:
River painted

Gently blend your sand color and your brown colors the farther from shore you get, then blend the brown into the green, and finally add navy blue in the center if this is a deep river. (See the color chart above)

Let this dry overnight to see if the colors you blended looks satisfactory. Make sure that all blends between colors are SEAMLESS, and don’t have a distinct break in color, unless you’re modeling underwater vegetation like Algae in the deep log pond (above) or brown coastal seaweed.

How to paint a riverbed

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 12:20 am

    I think its great you are doing this how-to on water, I still haven’t pored water yet on a layout, but you are doing a great job at making me less unsure when I do attempt it. Keep it up.

  2. HDuffy permalink
    October 13, 2009 6:31 am

    I too found this extremely useful. I’ve already done 1 small diorama water scene, and am preparing to do another. I keep referring back to this tutorial. It’s the best I’ve found for painting realistic looking water. Thanks!

  3. melvin santiago permalink
    February 12, 2010 7:21 am

    this is a very useful the best that i read in the web.keep going. i am in construction of my HO layout and i am doing all the building from scratch.

  4. March 24, 2010 4:06 am

    I just love the ‘wave’ effect you have on the top of the water, is it possible you could show or direct me to a page that shows how that effect can be achieved, I am modeling a UK railway out in Thailand, most of the things I use out here are brought over from the States or the UK, I have Woodlands Scenic’s Realistic Water to play with, once again a wonderful site and models, best regards, Stan and Diana training in Thailand.

    • glenn permalink
      July 27, 2010 2:15 am

      I’M not a mrr ,I
      build dioramas & this site makes me want build more scenes with water! Thanks for writting it. I’m 73 and this sure beats having to find another book!

  5. Charles permalink
    December 19, 2010 6:49 pm

    Im doing a layout of the old ticonderoga railroad and i need to know how to scale down lake george to ho scale.

  6. Clark woods permalink
    January 5, 2011 6:14 am

    could you post something or link information about creating a waterfall? thanks your posts are very informative 🙂

  7. June 9, 2012 3:51 pm

    I really like your water effects I’am going to try your method not the other brand I used the other one before but not this time. my area for the river under the bridge is 24×35 thank you for listing this .

  8. Ed Jones permalink
    October 6, 2012 4:59 am

    I am an absolute newbie at this and starting my first 4X6 layout for my son, who is 3. I know he is young but figure at the rate I am moving he will be 15 by the time I finish! Thank you so much for these tutorials. I am so lost at the moment and really appreciate the light you provide in the dark for people like me.

  9. Bob Vis permalink
    January 11, 2013 6:05 pm

    I have done sea scenes and standing pools of water and i paint the water first to my liking, when it is dry I paint it over once with “clear polyurethane indoor gloss”. cheap and it works fantastic.

  10. Connie permalink
    July 11, 2013 11:23 am

    Stunning work.Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: