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This is totally boring:

A blue baseplate.

How can I add some variance to it that helps to distinguish a rippling lake from a raging ocean from a fast-moving river, while keeping a look that's appropriate for micro-scale landscapes?

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It's boring, but when you need to cover a few tables with ocean, you get used to it very fast. – Joubarc Nov 11 '11 at 10:44
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The 1x1x2/3 slopes would be ideal for making waves, etc.:

54200 1x1x2/3 - Blue and 54200 1x1x2/3 - White or the 1x2 options.

Along with some blue tiles you could make some great waves:

Microscale Waves

Obviously, if you don't want them breaking, keep the white fronts blue.

Also, if you have some Navy blue tiles you can create currents of colder water - if you've ever watched large bodies of water you'll notice they have strips of different shades running through them.

Stick to tiles on the plate rather than the 2/3s height for lakes, or for some good ripples use the Round Dish 2x2 Inverted:

Round Dish 2x2 Inverted - Blue

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Transparent parts (slopes, tiles) work very well too – Joubarc Nov 11 '11 at 10:45
Good call @joubarc – Zhaph - Ben Duguid Nov 11 '11 at 11:14
Put the transparent on top of the blue baseplate and use different colors of transparent... you can get some very interesting effects that way – Larry Pieniazek Nov 26 '11 at 23:48

Try using combos of Trans-clear and Trans-blue studs to make a nice, clear foaming water affect. Studs can be bought in extreme masses on Bricklink for like, 1¢. So there's no trouble.

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The second one is particularly impressive, but both of those are minifig scale, not microscale. – user23 Jan 24 '12 at 21:29
oops. I somehow skipped "microscale". I'd use the same techniques regardless. – jfyelle Jan 25 '12 at 13:44

Use a blue stud and put a flat round Lego brick on top of it to make the beautiful ripples.

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