How To Create A Waterfall Acrylic Painting (2023)

norway falls waterfall acrylic painting

Painting waterfalls in any medium can be challenging.  Moving water is a unique action in Mother Nature, but there are lots of tips to get you started in waterfall acrylic painting!

Helpful Tips

1. One of the most helpful tips is to realize that in painting waterfalls most successful artists actually use a minimum of pure white paint!  Our brains see the water and immediately our analytical mind labels moving water as white.  However, as artists, we need to use what we know about color and value and how they relate to each other so that we can better tell the viewer that they are indeed looking at moving water.

For example, check out this beautiful painting by the Spanish master, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.  Notice how very little actual pure white ( if any) there is in the painting. Yet, we easily identify which of the items are really white.  The man’s shirt, the sea foam, and the clouds are actually painted quite mid value with multi hues!

sorolla fishermen beach waterfall acrylic painting
Pescadores Valencianos
*65 x 87 cm

Pro Tip:

If you are attempting to paint a white object, save the whitest white paint for a dash last, on top of a darker value underneath it.  Check out this painting by the German painter Karl Paul Themistokles von Eckenbrecher.  Notice how very little pure white depicts the falling water in full sunlight.

norway falls waterfall acrylic painting
Seven Sisters Waterfall Norway, by Karl Paul Themistokles von Eckenbrecher Creative Commons Wikimedia


2.   Water acts like a mirror, reflecting everything around it including the sky above, the warmth of the sun on a direct frontal hit,  the side reflections of trees and greenery on each side, overhanging branches etc.  Take a look at all the colors of the water in this waterfall:

rocky waterfall Mesa Potamos waterfall acrylic painting
Mesa Potamos Waterfall by Anton Zelenov, Creative Commons Wikimedia

Pro Tip:

Most masterful artists and illustrators always add a tad of yellow or orange to their purest whites.  Straight out of the tube white is chalky and cool toned.  If you are trying to depict something white and it’s in direct sunlight, the white will actually be quite warm in temperature.  If the object is OFF from a direct hit by the sun, then it may be a warm blue-white, as it reflects the blue of the overhead sky.  Or, if the object is reflecting light and color from underneath it or from the side, the color of the white will show that.  This photo by Khunkay has been retouched to show the blue of the far waterfall (rocks underneath, blue sky above) and the warm yellow of the small foreground stream waterfalls (warm sun directly over).

klonglan waterfall Thailand waterfall acrylic painting
Klonglan Waterfall, Thailand  by Khunkay Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Check out all the whites in this painting by Sorolla and how each plane has a different color temperature and color, depending on where the light source is coming from (the blue sky, the direct sun, bounced back from the ground or from an adjacent object).

Sorolla on horses waterfall acrylic painting
Las Grupas, Valencia by Joaquín Sorolla Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Pro Tip:

Look closely or even invent some color variations in the water to account for this!  Here’s an example by the painter John Singer Sargent.  His use of color variations to depict white is just luscious and inspiring!  This painting knocked the sox off of me 40 years ago, and it still does.  Just magical! There is zero pure white in this all-white subject matter painting!

sargent lily lily rose waterfall acrylic painting
John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose


Contrast that with this (still awesome) mural from Indonesia.  Notice how dead the whites are.  This is overuse of pure white straight out of the tube which leads to chalkiness and flatness.


indonesia mural too white waterfall acrylic painting
This lovely mural used too much pure white out of the tube


3.  Water is transparent and if it is still, with little movement, and has little impurities or sediment in the water, it will be nearly invisible, letting the bedrock of the stream below show through.  If your waterfall painting reference uses still water pooling downstream, you may want to consider taking advantage of this transparent feature of water.  But, be careful!!  You don’t want to have lots of focal points in your painting. If your main focal point is the waterfall, then let those opportunities to paint still water keep for another day. 



4.  Moving water is the perfect opportunity to use expressive brushstrokes in your paint application.  Many artists strive to use a calligraphic or vivid stroke with their paint lay down.  It shows ‘the artist’s hand’ and adds texture and interest to the painting.  Waterfalls are loaded with texture and acrylic is the absolute perfect medium to show textured brushstrokes!  Check out this Twatchman painting of Yellowstone for all the brushstrokes and colors:

twatchman waterfall waterfall acrylic painting
John Henry Twatchman Waterfall, Yellowstone


Pro Tip:

When painting from a photograph or from out in nature, turn off your labeling brain by using a piece of stiff paper with a small hole punched in it.  Hold this paper up to the area of the waterfall you are attempting to paint.  Now check the relative value (lightness or darkness) of what is in the hole compared to the stark whiteness of the paper.  Is it a darker value than the white of the paper?

By tuning out all the surrounding colors and values, it is much easier to ‘see’ and judge the hue, the value and the temperature of the color that you are seeing!


Application techniques

1. Acrylic is unique in that it dries super fast and getting water to look flowing can be accomplished in several different ways, depending on what you are after.  For this technique, paint the rocks and crevises first then layer the water over the dried paint.
For a blurry, non-stop action affect, like on this photograph, try using an airbrush for super fine sprays of paint, or using a very thinned wash of acrylic with many layers and finger blending out the hard edges.

Elakala_Waterfalls creative commons wikimedia waterfall acrylic painting
Creative Commons photo by ForestWander Nature Photography,


You may also enjoy using an entender or retard dryer for acrylic paints.  This lets you blend with your brush or finger similar to what can be accomplished with oil paints.

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2. Remember that with acrylic, you should let each layer thoroughly dry before you attempt to add another layer of paint, as each swipe of the brush may lift the under-layer.  It just takes a few minutes, so do not sacrifice the time!

3. For splashes and sprays, use a toothbrush loaded with slightly thinned acrylic to splatter paint where you need it. First paint a mid-dark underlayer of cool water using warm and cool grey tones depending on what kind of rock is under the water, the temperature of the light and reflections from nearby foliage.  Use a variety of thickness of acrylic paint because you don’t want this water feature to read smooth. 

Make sure you protect the other areas of your painting with scrap pieces of paper so that you don’t get splatters where you don’t want them. 


This is a great photo to use this technique.  It would be fun to use the fine blending technique for the far falls with a smooth under painting and the splatter technique for the sprays and clumps of water over a rougher textured paint.

Pearl Shoal Waterfall, western Sichuan, China.

Pearl Waterfall China waterfall acrylic painting
Jiuzhaigou Pearl Waterfall Noé Lecocq Creative Commons Wikimedia



4. Take advantage of the wonderful textural opportunities with acrylic paint by using a palette knife to apply paint in the thickest parts of waterfall foam, or consider using a thickening medium available for acrylic paints like this one to enhance your strokes:

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For More Detailed Learning:

I’ve taken classes from this master artist from New Zealand and I can highly recommend his learning DVDs.  He packs a lot of important information into his lessons and doesn’t dither around for 45 minutes talking about his brushes and his studio setup.  Notice his cover doesn’t have a single bit of pure, out of the tube white!  Voila!

>>Mastering Waterfalls with Richard Robinson<<


Anita HC

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