how to paint a waterfall, step by step

We can paint a waterfall in any of our oil paintings. A waterfall will add beauty, drama and sometimes mystery to our landscape paintings.

Painting a waterfall is a piece of cake. It’s fun and easy and it only takes three steps to paint the waterfall.

The landscape is a little bit more, but we will do that too. The landscape is as simple as possible, so we can get to the waterfall.

Paint a waterfall with oil paints.Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. Ps 42:7

what do you need to paint a waterfall?

This painting was done on a 16x20 stretched canvas. But you can use any size canvas or panels. Stretched canvas is recommended for paintings we intend to keep. Canvas boards are good for practice paintings.

My paintings are done with Winsor and Newton Griffin alkyds. They handle just like oil paints, except they dry faster. The techniques used the same as oil painting.

Your brush size depends on the size of your painting surface. This painting used #4 and #6 flats, #2 filbert and a 1/2" angle brush.

Learn more about oil painting materials here.

paint colors

Lay out the colors for painting the waterfall.Using a paper palette makes cleanup easy.

Lemon Yellow, Indian Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Red medium, Alizarin Crimson, Thalo Blue and Titanium White

Using a limited palette of colors makes it easy.

sketch your painting

It is advisable to do a value sketch on paper before starting any painting. After you get the values figured out, do a simple line sketch on the canvas.

Do your line sketch with paint that is thinned with a solvent. A yellow or Burnt Sienna will be easy to paint over later.

If you make a mistake, it is easy to rub off the line with a paper towel. A little solvent will take the line off completely.

Sketch out the waterfall painting using the rule of thirds.Sketch the placement of the main elements.

You may notice some light pencil lines. The composition is based on the rule of thirds. The head of the waterfall comes out at the juncture of the top third lines.

The rule of thirds is easy composition.

painting a waterfall, the underpainting

  • Use a flat brush and roughly lay in a thin coat of colors. Thin your paint with solvent, so it will dry quickly. Use colors only, no white paint at this stage.

Don't be concerned about painting smooth colors, just scrub them on. I actually used the flat side of the brush to cover the area faster.

Cover the entire canvas with the underpainting.

This gives us the placement of the elements. But more importantly, we want to see their value relationships.

Squint your eyes and notice the side of the cliff is fairly dark and the base is a darker yet. Notice the area behind the colored trees is darker than the trees.

Values are the backbone of any painting.

  • While the underpainting is still wet, dampen a flat brush with solvent, turn it sideways and pull out the waterfall.
Pull out the waterfall with a damp brush.Pull out the waterfall with a damp brush.

This gives us the placement of the waterfall. It is not necessary to get down to pure white canvas. We just need the placement.

Take a break while the underpainting dries, probably 30 to 60 minutes.

the basics of oil painting

  • Paint from thin to thick. What does that mean?

The first layers of paint are thinned with a solvent. The paint is very "thin". The white canvas will show through the paint.

Cover the entire canvas with paint. Just like we did in the underpainting.

The thin paint layer maps out the color and values of the entire painting. This first thin layer dries fast.

Each successive layer of paint is mixed with less solvent or medium.

The last "thick" layer is paint straight from the tube with nothing added.

  • Paint dark to light.

Always paint the dark colors first. Paint the dark layers, thin. Then paint lighter and thicker, as the painting progresses.

The lightest and whitest colors are painted last. Generally they will be straight paint with nothing added.

paint the background

  • Start with the background before we paint a waterfall.

We paint the sky first and then move to the closer items in the landscape.

This is my favorite way to paint a painting. It certainly is not the only way to paint, but it works for me.

Start painting a painting with the background.Paint the sky.
  • Dull a little bit of blue with either red or orange. Then, mix it with your white.

Paint from the top down. The sky is darker at the top and it gets lighter toward the horizon. Paint the entire sky. There is no need to leave space for the clouds.

  • Mix a warm white by adding a tiny bit of yellow, orange or red.

Paint in the tops of the clouds first. Clean and dry your brush. Use the clean brush and softly blend the white into the blue.

We want the clouds softer and darker than the waterfall. They are background. They should not be a distraction when we paint a waterfall.

paint the face of the cliff

  • Use your flat brush up and down to indicate the direction of the rock formations.
Use your brush strokes to indicate the rocks.Brush in the direction of the rocks.

Mix any cool, dark colors. Even though the cliff is mostly in shadow, it will still show different colors. A variation of colors is more interesting.

These dark colors are painted thin. That makes the next step easier. Remember "thin to thick" and "dark to light".

  • Continue painting the cliff all the way up to the edge of the foliage. Notice the base of the cliff is darker where it meets the water.
Continue painting the cliff below the waterfall.Paint in some lighter colors.

Paint in some thicker, light colors over the top of the thin, dark colors to indicate the rocky texture.

  • Now we can see what the painting will look like. This is a good stopping point for those who wish to take a break.
Painting a waterfall landscape.Paint a Waterfall, Day One

paint the foliage

  • Before we paint a waterfall, paint the foliage. Use your artist imagination and think trees while you paint.
Start painting the foliage above the waterfall.Paint the darker colors on the foliage.

Paint the dark foliage colors first. The light is coming from the top, left.

  • Paint the highlight colors on the left side of the foliage. Use a variety of colors to make it more interesting.

Gently meld the colors together so there are not a lot of hard edges.

Continue painting the tree foliage.Paint the highlight colors of the foliage.

  • Paint some foliage hanging down over the edge of the cliff. Use a variety of strokes, shapes and colors.

The straight lines were painted with a flat, angle brush. A script liner brush would work just as well. The small filbert brush was used for the various small leaves.

Paint a few branches throughout the upper foliage.

Day two of painting a waterfallDay two of painting a waterfall

The foliage is finished, next we will do the lake and paint a waterfall.

It was a day for me. You don't have to stop, continue if you wish.

painting art ezine

Sign up for the monthly Ezine to stay up to date with the latest news and tips. Receive a free download of "Painting a Wave" with signup.


paint the water

  • Start painting the water beneath the waterfall. Like before, we paint the darks first.
Start painting the water under the waterfall.Paint the darks of the water.

The yellows plus, Thalo Blue with some white make a nice variety of turquoise and greens.

Subdue the greens with a bit of red. Mixing green colors

  • Lay in some lighter colors on top of the darks. Don't cover up all the darks.
Continue painting the water under the falls.Lay in the lights.

  • Blend the colors with horizontal strokes.
Continue painting the water.Gently blend the colors.

After blending you will still see a variety of colors and a variety of darks and lights.

paint a waterfall

  • Use a bluish grey for the shadow part of the waterfall. Make your grey by mixing blue and orange with white. Thin the paint.
Paint the shadow colors of the waterfall.Paint the shadow colors.

Use a small flat brush. Many people use a fan brush to paint a waterfall that will work, too

Use a very light touch. Position the bristles of the brush vertically, up and down.

Start at the top of the falls. As you stroke down the falls, gradually turn the brush horizontally, so the falls get wider.

Notice, you can see the background through the thin paint.

This time, do not thin the paint. Remember "thick over thin".

Paint the waterfall highlights.Paint the waterfall highlights.

Pull the highlight color with the same light motion from the top of the waterfall, down the left side of the falls.

Don't cover up all of the bluish, shadow part on the right side of the falls.

Paint some bluish shadow colors (not thinned) where the water is splashing up when it hits the lake.

  • Finish painting the splashing water going out into the lake.

Pull and paint the shadow colors out into the lake water.

Put some warm highlights on the splashing water. Paint a few warm highlights out into the lake. Soften the back edge of the highlights out in the water.

how we paint a waterfall

Paint the things behind and around the waterfall first, then the falls.

  1. Paint the shadow areas of the falls with a thin shadow color.
  2. Paint thick highlights on the falls, not covering all of the shadows.
  3. Paint the splash area at the bottom of falls.

Enjoy painting your waterfalls!

Enjoy painting your waterfalls."Freedom Falls"

more pages for your enjoyment

  • How to Paint a Rose

    Learning how to paint a rose is fun, but it takes practice and patience. Using oil paints we will practice painting a red and a multicolored rose, step by step.

  • Painting with a Limited Palette

    Painting with a limited palette is fun and easy. It is the fastest way to give your art work cohesion and color harmony. Plus you only have to stock a few colors.

  • How to Paint Ocean

    Learn how to paint ocean. Understand what makes waves. Follow simple steps to create your own seascape paintings. Then you can enjoy the ocean at home anytime.

  • How to Paint a Wave

    Most seascape paintings include a transparent wave. Join the artist Carol May and learn how to paint a wave step by step with five easy steps for the beginner.

  • Landscape Paintings

    Bring the peace and beauty of the outdoors into your home with landscape paintings of barns, swamp, seascapes, forest, prairie, mountains and more by Carol May