Water in Art

Water in Art

water in art


1-Think of all the words that the following image suggest to you:


the water cycle



2-Classify these forms of water into two groups:

a turbulent ocean

one lake

a calm sea

a flowing stream

a waterfall

a flowing river

slow-moving rivers


Water in motion Calm/Tranquil Water

How has water been represented in art?

The study of water in art examines the different ways in which it has been represented. Water has often been shown in the form of a symbol .

Many artists painted water in motion - a flowing stream or river, a turbulent ocean, or even a waterfall - but also enjoyed views of tranquil waters - lakes, slow-moving rivers, and views of a calm sea. In each case, the water determined the overall mood of the image.

While some artists showed a direct interest in water itself, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who was fascinated by water and studied it as an artist/scientist, many others represented the attributes of water in mythology and folklore.

Since ancient times, art has shown a cult of water with images that personify the physical and metaphysical aspects of water and the numerous water divinities. Artists have also played an important role in showing in visual terms their belief in the sacredness of water.

Reading Comprehension Questions:

1-   Why is water considered a symbol in paintings?

2-  Which ways has water been represented?

3-  Why did Leonardo da Vinci show an interest in “water”?

4-  What do you think we refer to when we talk about the “sacredness of water”?


A bit of history …

Water can be represented by horizontal wavy lines. A wavy line in the lowest section of the great alabaster vase found at Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia probably indicates a river, along the banks of which reeds and plants are growing.


horizontal wavy line

horizontal wavy line


In Ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphic sign for water was a horizontal zigzag line; the small sharp crests appear to represent wavelets on the water's surface. When Egyptian artists wished to indicate a volume or body of water, such as a lake or a pool or the ocean, the zigzag line is placed vertically and multiplied in an equally spaced pattern.

Cattle Fording a River Tomb of Ti Saqqara c. 2450 BCE

Cattle Fording a River Tomb of Ti, Saqqara, c. 2450 BCE

In ancient Egypt the name for water was uat, which also means the colour green. Water and green were considered synonymous because water was believed to typify the earliest form of soul. For the Egyptians, the word uat also signified the hard green stone, the emerald, which is associated with romantic love and the sensual side of Nature. Because of its connection with the life-giving river Nile, the water-lily was also associated symbolically with water.


Much later, a pair of wavy black lines represented the water of the English Channel in the Bayeux Tapestry in the Middle Ages.

bayesux tapestry

Norman Fleet Sailing for England, detail from The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070-88)


How would you represent the following elements?


the sea        

a lake          


a river         


Water, a universal symbol

Fill in the gaps with the missing words:                    

Sign       cleansing        health     fresh            murky     life

Water is a universal symbol of change and is often present at turning points in a story. Since water is often a ________ of life, many times water represents _________. Likewise, water can also represent death (such as dark ________ waters). Water can also be up into two categories: fresh water and bad/polluted water. _______water can represent good health, and bad water symbolizes bad ________. Water can also mean purity and __________.



river in oil painting

The river is a sign of ease and fluidity with a meandering form. Often it is used to represent the calm beauty of nature. Certain types of rivers are often described as auspicious and healthy.

A fast-flowing river can often be used to symbolize strength, power and sometimes calamity. Calamity can be represented through a disaster, such as the river flooding a nearby town or village.


ocean in oil painting

The Ocean is a symbol of power and strength, dominating all other symbols of water because of its immensity. All life was ocean-born and life still exists in the ocean; therefore the ocean represents life. Also, the ocean represents mystery.

The ocean is known for being unpredictable, hard to navigate in time of storm and sometimes known for being beautifully calm. Neptune is the Roman god of the sea.

Sometimes, the ocean is referred to as being a tear of God or the sorrow; a place where you leave your bad memories and sadness. The ocean is also known to symbolize hope, truth, and in some cases, mystery and magic.


Which famous paintings do you know where any form of water appear? Provide the name of the painting, the full name of the painter, the century/centuries he/she lived, the nationality and the artistic movement it was included in. 

Ex: The Shout by Edward Munch

Painter Painter Century Nationality Art movement
The Shout Edward Munch 20th century