Waterfalls are a pleasure to watch and a delight to paint. They are challenging subjects but if handled properly, painting a waterfall can be a very satisfying experience. “Deep In The Woods” is based on a waterfall from the beautiful Wisconsin countryside and I’d like to walk you through the steps I followed to paint a waterfall and create this painting.
It all starts with drawing and it’s anybody’s guess that the most powerful arrow in the artist’s quiver is the one that (s)he uses to draw with. If you cannot draw, you cannot paint. No amount of colour can mask poor drawing skills and hence I urge you to practice drawing as much as you can and as often as you can. To paraphrase comedian Jerry Sienfeld – ‘If you want to get better at something, do it every day. Do it on Christmas. Do it on Thanksgiving.’ And I believe that nothing truer has ever been said.
How To Paint A Waterfall In Watercolor – Step By Step
This painting was done on Saunders Waterford cold pressed paper but you are free to use your favourite brands of paper, paints and brushes. I used a 2B pencil to draw the main shapes. Notice how I did not go into the details with the drawing and merely suggested the overall shapes of the elements.
Once you are happy with the drawing, it’s time to wet your brushes. Different artists take different approaches to laying in their washes. Some start landscape paintings with the sky wash. Some others lay what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘mother wash’ over the entire painting surface. This serves as an underpainting of sorts. But some artists, like me, work on the point of interest to begin with. What I am going to detail out in this tutorial is my way of painting and that by no means is the only way. Whatever approach you choose, make sure you enjoy it because in the end that’s all that matters.
I start by wetting the entire area of the paper above the horizon with clean water and wait for a couple of minutes for the paper to lose it shine before I start applying paint. Always have two jars of water – one to rinse your brushes in and the other for clean water. If you do not use clean water to mix paints or to wet your painting surface you will never achieve the magical transparency that makes watercolor paintings shine. More importantly, you will never be able to get oil painters to wonder ‘How the heck do they do it?’ and lose their sleep over it. Just kidding.
I use quick downward strokes to suggest the rocks loading my ¾” flat brush separately with Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue. I allow the pigments to mix on paper and create rock like patterns. When I paint a waterfall, the water area is left unpainted but I make sure some of the edges are soft and some are hard. This not only creates variety but also gives it a very painterly appearance. I also drop in some blue for the sky patch on top and let it merge with the rock shape.
While the wash is still wet, I move on to the next step where I work on the foliage shapes. I load my brush with greens and blues and drop in the paint to the wet area and the wetness on the paper carries the pigment around creating the impression of clumps of foliage. I use Raw Sienna at some places to have some variety.
When the wash is dry I use some brush drawing to suggest edges of the foliage and use the long point of a rigger brush to paint the branches. In some dark areas, I scrape out the branches using the bottom tip of my brush. A razor blade or the edge of a credit card would work just fine. I have always used Visa but a Mastercard might work too!
Before I move on to the next step, I need a dry surface to work on and hence I leave the painting to dry. I use a drier when I am in a hurry but prefer to let washes dry the natural way.
Once the washes are bone dry, I use a dark mix (Burnt Sienna + Prussian Blue) to suggest a few more tree trunks and branches. This allows me to create some depth.
Now I move on to the rocks. I use a weak wash of Ultramarine Blue with a touch of Burnt Sienna to paint in the rocks. I always keep the light source in mind and make sure that the sunlit areas are left unpainted. For those rocks whose edges meet with the water I pre-wet the area to achieve soft edges. Notice how I have used brush drawing to create broken edges on the rocks to suggest their texture. These are small tricks that help you a great deal in creating convincing texture and such. The key is not just to understate, but to also do it the right way.
The next step is to paint the rest of the rock formation. I use the same colours but make sure that the mix is much stronger since it will be used to depict shapes in the foreground which are closer to the viewer.
All that’s left now is to shape the flowing water. What’s important to remember when you paint a waterfall is what you DO NOT paint. I have taken extreme care to leave most of the water area unpainted. I wet the shadow sides of the water keeping the light source in mind and drop in some blue pigment which spreads due to the wetness on the surface and creates the effect of falling and flowing water.
If something begins to looks like what you intended it to look like, STOP. Do not work on it anymore. If your goal is to capture every bit of detail, it’s about time you traded your brushes for a camera. As artists, we are here to suggest and to complete a painting in the eyes of a viewer. Always whisper. Loud people are not so popular anyway.
Hope you enjoyed this tutorial of how to paint a waterfall. Please leave your comments and suggestions and I’ll be back with another tutorial soon.
So long. Happy painting.
Sujit Sudhi is a watercolour artist living and working between Kochi, India and Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA. His work has been displayed in galleries across the United States and his painting titled ‘Morning Light’ appeared in the 18th edition of the North-light books publication titled Splash, which features the work of the top 120 watercolour artists in the world. You can visit his website by clicking here!