Oil Painting Waterfalls

Published: 06th January 2012
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Landscape paintings can often be enhanced by adding some falling water. Water falling over a cliff or precipice, etc., can add quite a dramatic element to an oil painting into what might otherwise be a fairly static image. It also provides an obvious focal point for the picture, which can sometimes be a problem for beginning artists.

Sometimes a waterfall may need to be more or less central in the picture, but it is good if it can be shifted towards one side or the other. Many artists divide their pictures into thirds. This can be vertically or horizontally, but probably the latter is better for paintings done in a landscape format, and the former better for vertical or portrait designs. This need not be a great cataract in to create some extra interest (as in, for example, my painting of Heyburn Wyke, Yorkshire Dales).

Planning Beforehand
All artists have their own ways of working and the method you employ depends on which you find seems to work best i.e. develop that approach which best seems to produce the kind of image you are trying to create. This goes for all the stages in making a painting.

For example, how you set out the picture and whether you sketch it first with pencil, charcoal etc., or thinly mix paint. The latter has definite advantages, although it may be difficult at first to get into. For one thing, using a pale colour and a very small brush, you do not need to worry afterwards about how to hide the sketch lines, which can be an especial problem where transparent (as opposed to opaque) oil paints are being used. (In passing, note that all manufacturers of good quality oil paints publish notes on the various characteristics of their oil paints, including whether or not they are transparent, semitransparent or opaque. Hence you can easily take this into account when buying your paints. Bear this in mind when buying paints and check either with an assistant or, beforehand, by looking at the manufacturer’s web site since the information is not always included on the tube).

You also need to bear in mind where you will start painting: top, bottom or somewhere in the middle. There should be a good reason for which you choose! And this will almost certainly emerge from the way you have thought about planning the picture.

Rock, Foliage Or Water First?
But if you take a fairly traditional or realism approach to oil painting, you might be using a preponderance of transparent oil paints. These will not easily cover anything painted beneath them. So when you come to painting the water gushing over a cliff edge, if you are using opaque paint, you will largely cover-up anything beneath the paint, so there is little point in spending time on painting that area.

See for example Falls At Richmond Castle where the fall of water is so great in some parts of the painting that the force of water covers anything that might have been painted underneath. That is not the case in the first painting mentioned above: Heyburn Wyke, Yorkshire Dales. In this case, I painted all the cliff face in first because much of it would be seen through or around the water. But also note that in “Falls At Richmond Castle” some of the water nearer to the foreground was not so dense and the underneath can be seen and did need to be painted in.

With a less dense fall of water, you might want to leave a sense of, say, the rock surface which can be seen behind the falling water. In this case you might use Transparent White (such as manufactured by Winsor and Newton), building up the impression through a number (perhaps of five or six) thin layers, each applied when the former one has dried properly. This is called “glazing” and involves a gradual build-up of the impression one wishes to create, rather than completing it with one application of paint.

There is a strong contrast between the two paintings mentioned here and “Heyburn Wyke” involves a much less force of water so that it was really necessary to paint in the rock face first. Here was also foliage to deal with which was not a factor in the other painting) and, after the white (actually a slightly off-white colour with the addition of a small touch of brown) was touch dry, the leaves and branches needed to be painted over the water.

This kind of approach is generally useful for those parts of a waterfall where much less water is falling, or where there are splashes from where the water impacts the rocks below or even ledgers partway down.

Concluding Remarks
Try to get into the very good, even necessary, habit of carefully planning your painting in advance. Also try some experiments before doing a full picture by painting in some dark background to represent a rock, letting it dry and then creating your impression of the falling water.

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