Monday, June 22, 2009

The Easy Way to Paint a River

This is an easy and effective technique for painting rivers. When you are painting a river it can be a bit daunting trying to get all the details in. This method paints the river in two stages so there is less to concentrate on in each stage.

The idea is that you paint the riverbed and some of the riverbank area first and let it dry. Next you over paint the area with some washes of colour then add details to enhance the final result.

Start with the underpainting

I like to use neutral tones for the stone, rocks and gravel that make up the bottom of the river or stream. It will depend on the stones natural colour whether you'll want to choose colours to the brown or grey tones for the main colour.

In either case it usually looks best if you include some of both colours. Once you have decided on the colour of the local stone you can add more of it to your base painting if necessary.

I like to underpaint some of the river banks as well. My favourite way is to include the middle and distant areas. (This can help to unify the look.) The main detailed area will be in the foreground sections which will be done later on.

At this stage you're just painting in the stony areas in the neutral tones and concentrating on getting the shapes and modelling of the rocks looking good.

Add some colour

Once the underpainting is fully dry add washes of colour to show the water and highlights on the river.

I think it is easier to start with pale washes first and then darken in the areas along the banks.

Then paint in any bank areas using thin washes of colour. There will probably be areas in the water that will reflect the grasses, so you can add them at this stage using the same wash as the riverbank.

If you are painting a sunset then the sky colours may be reflected in the water too.

Add some thick paints for definition

After you are happy with the washes use some thicker paints to give some of the areas a bit more detail. For example you may want to add ripples to the stream. The riverbank vegetation will look more interesting if you take the time to paint in some grassy shapes.

Don't forget the Highlights

I like to add the highlights in the water at the end of this process. They can be where the sunlight is hitting the water or perhaps where the water is disturbed by the rocks underneath.

The highlights may be short strokes for a sparkly look or long smooth lines for a calm ripple effect.

This will work for...

This will work for pictures where the water flows between the rocks too. Just use the same method but leave some of the rocks ‘out of the water’. You can add extra detail to these stones if you want.

Top Acrylic Painting Tips

If you only want to see a bit of the riverbank then add some white to the wash colours. As acrylic Titanium White is an opaque colour the wash will be less transparent.

Highlight with ripples of darker colours as well as lighter ones for lovely effect.


This is a really effective technique that I hope you'll try. Remember you don't need to do a whole painting to test it out. You can try it on a spare piece of paper to see if you like the look of it.

This example is just a quick painting, if I was doing a proper painting I would probably add in some tall grasses to the foreground.