Waterfalls are a fantastic subject to paint, particularly as a study of edges, color, and movement. But they can be challenging, with all the twists, turns, breaks, reflections, and turbulence as the water crashes down through the rocks. In this post, I will provide you with some guidance for how to paint waterfalls, using master paintings and my study below as examples.
Simplifying the Shapes and Forms
One of the major challenges of painting waterfalls is simplifying all the chaos of the quick-moving water into something which makes sense in a painting. If you start by trying to paint every twist, turn, and splash of water, you will likely end up with an incoherent mess on the canvas. You need to start with big-picture shapes and forms, then build up detail on top of that.
Below is the reference photo which I painted from, taken on a recent trip to New Zealand. I will run through how I go about simplifying the waterfall into basic shapes and forms.
I first try to break the water down into simple shapes. Below is a rough example, with orange representing the lights and blue representing the darks of the water. The darks, in this case, are areas where the water is in shadow, areas where cast shadows from surrounding rocks and shadows are hitting, and areas where the dark rocks are showing through.
It is important to separate the lights and darks early in the painting because they are important for giving a sense of form to the water (most of the time you do not want to be using just one color to paint the whole waterfall).
When I started this painting, I stained the canvas with raw umber then rubbed away some of the paint with solvent and a cloth to indicate the light areas in the waterfall and the general flow of water. Kind of like a negative painting, where you depict form by lifting paint, rather than applying it.
These few simple but important markings give me a feel for the composition and where everything is located.
The other major shapes you will be dealing with in waterfall painting are the rocks, trees, and any other objects in the water. In this case, there are some large, scattered rocks impeding the flow of water. I used a round brush to sketch the outlines of these rocks. I was careful to get the sketch as accurate as possible. More time spent at this stage on the sketch means time saved later in the painting fixing mistakes.
A simple color block-in provided a solid foundation for the painting and gave me an idea of all the shapes and forms. From here, I was able to add detail and start capturing the movement of the water.
Capturing the Flow and Movement of the Water
Once you have a rough idea of the shapes and forms, you need to focus on capturing the flow and movement of the water. The last thing you want is a blocky and rigid waterfall. You need to really feel the twists and turns in the water as it crashes around.
Have a think about what the gesture of the water is. If you could only use one continuous line to draw the waterfall, what would it look like?
Here are some other questions to ask yourself: How fast is the water moving? What direction? It is hitting a rock and spraying outwards? Is it in freefall? Is it running over rocks or something flat like sand?
The flow of a waterfall will typically twist, turn, stop, and start as it hits rocks, trees, and other objects on the way down. It is rarely one continuous and smooth flow. So your brushwork should match this varied nature of the waterfall.
Use smooth and long strokes for relatively calm areas of water or water in freefall; impasto brushwork for whitewash or turbulent water; and small dabs of color to pick up water spraying off rocks and trees. The scumbling technique is also particularly effective to depict the hazy spray at the bottom of a waterfall.
Having said that, you also need to retain an overall sense of continuation of the water. The water may stop flowing in certain areas, but as a whole, it needs to appear like it is flowing down somewhere.
In the reference photo below I have indicated where the water is flowing. It is a good practice to try and follow the water with your eyes when painting waterfalls, so you get an idea of how and where the water is moving. If you don't understand the water, then you will struggle to paint it realistically.
John Singer Sargent's watercolor The Athenaeum, Mountain Waterfall is a great example of capturing the movement of water without overdoing it on the detail. A few long, downward sloping strokes and areas of exposed paper for whitewash are more than enough to give a feel of the water as it flows down through the rocks. You can really feel the water as it falls, crashes, and comes to a rest.
Here are some points on using color when painting waterfalls:
- You can use color to reiterate the form of the waterfall. See if you can break the water down into two parts: part in light and part in shadow. I did this for the reference photo at the start of the post in orange and blue. Then do your best to keep these areas distinct.
- Be aware of any cast shadows from surrounding trees or rocks and make sure you use darker colors for these areas. Also, be mindful that the shadows may be darker than they appear. When painting things which we understand to have a white local color, they can appear lighter than they actually are in shadow. There is a painting by Sargent towards the end of this post named Yoho Falls which demonstrates some beautiful work with the cast shadows on the waterfall.
- The colors will probably change every time there is a change in plane or the nature of the water, from the flat surface just before the fall, to the edge, to the waterfall itself, to the turbulent whitewater, to the calm body of water at the bottom. Use color to capture or emphasize these changes. For areas of turbulent whitewater, light grays and white will probably be suitable. For calmer and more transparent areas, you might want to introduce more color. The painting below is a great example of using color to suggest changes in the plane and the nature of water.
- Be careful with white; many artists tend to overuse it when painting waterfalls. I would only use pure white for the brightest of highlights, if at all. Most of the time you should be using grays and other weak colors. In Thomas Hill's A Waterfall In The Sierras, pure white only seems to be used for the very top of the waterfall. The colors get gradually more dull and gray towards the bottom of the waterfall. Also, on a separate note, observe how the waterfall merges into one with the grays of the cliff faces at the bottom.
- To indicate wetness on rocks and trees, you may want to paint some partial reflections. In the reference photo (below), you can see some of the rocks around the center are wet and partially reflecting the colors of the waterfall.
Rigid Rocks and Flowing Water
A key feature of waterfall paintings is the beautiful contrast between the rigid rocks and the flowing water. It is usually a good idea to really try and push this contrast. Here are some examples of how you might go about doing so:
- Use solid and rigid brushwork for the rocks and fleeting and loose brushwork for the water.
- Use hard edges for the rocks and soft edges for the water.
- Use dark colors for the rocks and light colors for the water.
- Use thin paint for the rocks and thick paint for the water (or vice versa).
- Use solid colors for the rocks and varied colors for the water (or vice versa).
In Sargent's Yoho Falls, the water appears organic and connected as it flows down through the rocks. The rest of the landscape is rough and jagged, with sharp highlights and deep shadows. Also, take note of Sargent's attention to detail in painting all the cast shadows on the waterfall.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Simplify the water down to basic shapes and forms. You don't want your waterfall to appear flat. What would the waterfall look like if it was just made up of basic shapes and forms?
- Try to capture the movement and flow of the water. Think about the overall gesture of the waterfall.
- Try to match the nature of your brushwork to the nature of the water. For example, use rough brushwork for rough whitewater. Or calm brushwork for calm water.
- Use color to help reiterate form and pick up any changes in the plane or nature of the water.
- Be careful not to overuse white.
- Think about what you are trying to say in the painting and really try to push in that direction. For waterfall paintings, it is usually a good idea to really push the contrast between the rigid rocks and the flowing water.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.)
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. Want to learn more about landscape painting? Check out my Landscape Painting Masterclass.