Want to learn 7 easy steps to paint a rocky mountain waterfall? This art tutorial teaches beginners and advanced alike how to paint a realistic waterfall oil painting.
In this painting class you will discover the underlying techniques, principles and ideas that guided me with this waterfall painting. You will also read about the colors and brushes used for the major areas like the rocks and water.
My Brief History with Waterfalls
The first waterfall painting I finished was in the early 90’s. Okay, it was more of a trickle.
We lived in the mountains of Colorado where we were surrounded by waterfalls large and small.
In every place that Kristie and I have lived in or traveled to, waterfalls have been one of our favorite sights. This waterfall was at the base of the Diavolezza Mountains in Switzerland.
Waterfalls have fascinated and challenged me throughout my painting career.
Based on the photo of Kristie and I you can see that I used a lot of what I remembered about the falls in Switzerland for the painting rather than relying on the photo. I did paint on location while I was there but didn’t have a chance to paint at the falls that day.
Here is the photo reference I used for this tutorial’s waterfall painting. This was taken during my plein air painting trip in Virginia. Once again, I veered significantly from the photo during the painting process.
For me, photos are more to spur my memory and give me ideas than to provide a perfect road map for my painting.
With this waterfall, my original intent was to do a small 7×5 inch waterfall study. Once I had a clear idea in my mind of how I wanted to paint the waterfall however, that size seemed too small, so I switched to an 8×10.
I also thought about including trees like you see in the photo but decided the painting would be stronger without them. When I do a larger version of this painting I may decide to add some trees or other foliage. I often don’t know until I start to paint and the painting tells me what it needs.
7 Easy Steps to Paint a Rocky Mountain Waterfall
(with colors and brushes)
Here’s an example of starting with a toned panel or canvas.
The rocky landscape colors were muted and close in the range of colors. Also, the dried-up orange fallen leaves were everywhere.
I knew that beginning with a warm reddish orange color would help create a harmony in the painting like the leaves did in the photo. That way I could get the same feeling of all those leaves without painting them all in.
I used a Rosemary Ultimate Long Flat size 10 hog bristle brush for the Transparent Oxide Red initial lay-in color.
With the tone down the next step was to establish the shadow pattern and overall movement I wanted in the composition or design.
I used Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and a touch of Sap Green for the rich dark shadows.
Notice the way I use my brush. Part of the brushstroke is opaque while much of the stroke is done with a broken dry-brush sweep. I determined right off that I wanted that orange under color to show through in the final stages of the painting.
That’s where the dry-brush stroke is amazing. It gives the general value or tone of the color while allowing the colors and values underneath to mingle and add interest. It also simulates the texture of rocks.
Since I wanted the overall mood to be a bit dark and dramatic I covered the painting with the darker lavender color.
The very top of the painting I wanted to be a touch lighter though, so it wouldn’t pull the eye up and out of the painting. That’s why I added a little white to the shadow color and reserved the darkest shadows for lower in the scene.
My goal was to have the contrasts. colors and lines guiding the viewer to the middle right cascade of water. Hopefully, I will also have plenty to engage the viewer throughout the painting, but that is the primary center of interest.
At this point I began to give shape to many of the major rocks with variations of the lavender mix.
Throughout the painting’s progression so far, I had used the same size 10 brush and mixed right into the original pile of paint without cleaning my brush.
The rocks were created by modifying the lavender paint with varying degrees of Transparent Oxide Red, Cadmium Red Light, Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and white.
On some of the larger rocks I used Ultramarine Blue and Cad Red light with a little white. Then I would switch the mix up by adding Transparent Oxide Yellow, Quinacridone Red and white into that lavender color.
The spots of green and yellow were the beginning of my experimenting with color harmonies.
I will often place colors around in a painting to see how they feel together. That way I can move forward with greater confidence to the more refined stages of the painting.
The yellows and greens were a combination of Cad Lemon, Cad Red Light and white for the yellow rocks with some Phthalo Blue added for the middle right green. The lower grayed down green was created using Manganese Blue and white. Each of these colors was mixed right into the existing lavender paint to keep the colors from getting overly saturated.
You can see that, even though it looked like a confused mess in the early shadow placement stages, I was clear in my mind about the rocks and organization as I worked.
Although, while I knew basically where I wanted the major shapes, I still tried to leave myself open to happy accidents and ideas that might change my direction. The only thing that matters is making the painting as strong and engaging as possible.
Now it really started to get fun as I added water streaming around the rocks.
You can see that I maintained the general idea from the photo reference while keeping myself free to explore my own vision using my imagination.
For the water I switched to a Rosemary Series 279 Long Flat badger hair brush. They are fantastic brushes for loading up the bristles with thick paint and having the bristles splay out and loosely leave striated colors and textures in the paint.
The water is a mix of Phthalo Blue, Sap Green, Cad Yellow Medium, Transparent Oxide Yellow and white.
If I used just the Cad Yellow, it would become too rich of a color. The Transparent Oxide Yellow helps tone down the saturation of the more pure cad yellow.
With each of my rocks and water colors I made sure I lightly mixed the paint on my palette. That helped me get a variety of colors with each stroke and made the painting feel more natural and lifelike. Remember, water especially is moving and changing every moment so leaving our paint mixtures lightly blended with striated colors mimics that idea better than one solid color.
Learning how to paint a waterfall is really about learning to think in terms of simple shapes, movement and lines
We’re getting close now.
Notice in the reference photo that all the water is fairly bright from top to bottom. It’s our job as artists to think beyond the photo or even what’s in front of us painting from life.
I added Ultramarine Blue to the pile of paint used for the water to push it into the shadows on the upper right. I also added variations of Manganese and Phthalo Blue and Quinacridone Red to create transitional value shadows under the rocks.
I determined that the painting would be more dramatic if I used light and shadow throughout the rocks and water to direct the viewer around the painting.
The photo is simply a starting point. My imagination is the most important tool I have.
I wanted the brightest areas and strongest contrast to be in the flowing water. Because of that I knew I needed to use bright colors in the rocks without relying on too much white.
So, I kept the values in the middle of the value scale where colors are richer.
The strong reddish orange colors were mixed with Cad Yellow Medium and Quinacridone Red at first. After placing some of that mix around he lower left rocks I added Cad Red Light to really punch up the color.
For the strongest more brilliant reddish orange I combined Cad Orange, Cad Yellow Medium, Quinacridone Red and Cad Red Light together. I placed that color near the center of interest on the top of the large lower right rock and the top middle left rock near the waterfall.
All of this was done using the same Rosemary 279 Long Flat – without cleaning the brush as I went along. I would wipe off shadow color with a paper towel after each stroke, but I never stopped to clean my brush with Turpenoid Naturals.
Here is where taking my time becomes critical.
I sensed that I was almost finished.
The final refining accents could either add amazing clarity and strength to the painting or destroy the painterly natural feeling I had achieved thus far by getting too busy and distractive.
Early on I talked about leaving remnants of the original tone-color that would show through in the final painting. I wanted to make sure those remnants felt natural and increased the drama.
In the upper right rocks in the middle of the waterfall you can see some of those remnants that simply felt like they were unfinished. I decided that was one of the areas that needed attention.
In the next photo you will see that I added quite a few small refinements – like a thin highlight on the top right rock.
That highlight and other changes were made using a size 3 Rosemary 279 Long Flat and a Rosemary Egbert Series 2085 size 2. I basically used 4 brushes for the entire painting.
Another important addition were some brighter strokes of light green to the water in the lowest portion of the waterfall.
I wanted the water to remain in the shadows while still being brighter than surrounding rock colors. It was also to increase the sense of movement in the water.
You can see how those final changes added fun color shapes, values and clarity to those upper rocks. I concentrated on using those shapes and lines to lead the viewer down to the main center of interest.
The edges were also critical.
Cascading water creates mist that softens edges and modifies colors and values. Keeping that in mind while painting helps our work seem real – it allows the viewer to feel the mist and atmosphere as if they are there in person.
Those edges were created by moving the brush not just backward but by also pushing the brush forward. Pushing the brush forward splays the brush bristles slightly which breaks up the stroke and the edges.
All along the way I had to decide how many large and small shapes I would add. If I added too many small shapes of color or value, the painting would become overly complicated and feel busy.
That’s why I removed entirely the bit of waterfall at the top of the painting. I felt it detracted from the center of interest by drawing the viewer’s attention to that area too much.
Hopefully, I added enough touches of saturated color, varied warm and cool color temperatures and contrasting values to give the painting energy and drama while keeping the feeling natural. That is the challenge with each new painting.
This piece was so much fun! It was one of those rare paintings that move almost as if they are painting themselves.
I hope you have as much fun as I did when you head into the mountains to paint your own rocky mountain waterfall masterpiece.
Read about the paintbrushes I prefer to use HERE.