This brightly colored, small, semiaquatic turtle has a smooth upper shell. The general color of the upper shell is olive, olive brown, or nearly black; usually there are yellow, irregular lines and a reddish-orange outer edge. The lower shell is red-orange with a prominent pattern of brown markings that follows the scute seams toward the outer edge. The head and legs may be dark brown or black and strongly patterned with yellow lines.
Similar species: The southern painted turtle (Chrysemys dorsalis) is found in the Bootheel region (where the western painted turtle is not found). It is similar, but has a prominent lengthwise orange, red, or yellow stripe down the upper shell. The lower shell is plain yellow. The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) has a red “ear” stripe and a yellow lower shell with a dark blotch in each scute.