Painting Waterfalls

Snoqualmie Falls, Washington

Aloha, Everyone!

In my last post I painted a foggy scene of our Ko’olau mountain range on the island of O’ahu, where I live.  It rained so hard that there were over a dozen  waterfalls.  This time I attempted a close up waterfall of Snoqualmie Falls in Washington state.  It is where a friend visited and then posted her photo on Instagram.

My Goal.   There is always something new to learn with every painting project.  I hoped to paint a waterfall cascading down into a pond below, and to practice the dry brush technique again with water mist.  And as usual I looked for an uncomplicated photo, so I thought.  As you see in the photo there are several elements needed in even a simple painting- from top to bottom:  sky, trees, part of a mountain ridge or cliff face, waterfall, pond or pool of water, rocks at the ground level.  A knowledge of how to draw and/or paint trees and rocks, mix and use paints with the right brushes and painting techniques are some of the prerequisites for doing even a simple painting!  Flat brushes are my choice of brushes; fan brush for evergreens and dagger brush which I use as a liner for tree trunks and small rocks.

Getting Ready to Paint.  Choosing a medium to use, this time acrylic paint, means to be sure the water soluble paints are securely put away out of sight, along with the linseed oil and thinner so none of the wrong supplies get used.  With acrylic painting, basically all that is needed is a stay wet palette, spray mister to mist the canvas and/or paints, acrylic paints and a couple of  glasses for water (rinse in one glass and then the other).  You can save time getting up to change dirty water especially when you need a clean brush for light color paints, so I use two containers of water which are clear glass.  That lets me see how dirty the water is getting.  For this painting I used an 11×14 cotton canvas, but I also like Fredrix toned panels that fit into photo frames and are great for gift giving.

I used to sometimes place clean brushes in a shallow tray of water when changing brushes, with only the bristles in the water and brush handles sticking out.  (If brushes are standing in water too long, like in the water container, their wood handles will soak up water and expand, then the paint on the brush will eventually begin to crack and fall off in slivers.) For this project I just cleaned the brushes with the second rinse, dried them with a rag and lay them down flat to be used later as needed.

The Prep Process.  Some artists use very small thumb nail pencil sketches (1.5×2 or a little larger) as possible ways to compose a picture for a drawing or painting.  These are rough pencil outlines.  Many plein air artists, especially,  may use this technique on site to quickly decide which sketch is the best for their painting.

But for all artists, sometimes doing small black and white notans in 2 to 4 values can prove very helpful, too.  Notans are the dark and light masses in a harmonious arrangement that help an artist to know if  a painting will have balance and variety.  Other things may show up in notans, for instance whether the spaces between shapes are unequal and not the same size, and also whether or not art principles are applied, e.g. rule of thirds regarding the placement of the horizon and/or focal point.   Notans serve as guides or aids only to assure a strong composition.  In my opinion, and as you will see what happened with my waterfall painting, they can only ‘suggest’ and not dictate how a painting will turn out.  Someone wrote that the brushes will do their own thing.  It seems not likely until it ‘mysteriously’ happens!

The original photo and photo in monochrome black and white:


The sketch,  a 9 value gray scale notan, 3 value notan, 4 value notan painting (all 5×6):


I tried to find a way to combine values, have fewer than more, and after focusing on the waterfall I decided that the rock/cliff face of both sides needed to be simplified.   I have not included photos of rest of my usual prep process which includes using a warm color ground on this scene and then blocking in areas with an underpainting that covers the white canvas- before starting to paint.  My process is the same as with oils in that I paint in layers from top to bottom, but wet over dry since acrylic paints dry quickly without an extender.

The final painting shows artistic license that allowed me to create my own version of a waterfall scene where changes were made, and the temperature of the painting was made warmer than the original photo.  In the monochromatic photo,  you can see that four main values are used: black, dark gray, light gray and white.


Self Critique.  The best critique for any artist should be his/her own.  After all, the artist owns the piece of art, was engaged in the creative process that birthed the painting.  While I appreciate comments on my work, my feelings about why I do art supersede anyone’s standards or expectations about ‘my art’ for the following reasons.  I am a process-oriented person first and foremost; I am a life-long learner and have not ‘arrived’.  I enjoy the process of learning with brush and paint in hand to see what we can do together.

These are part of my self critique- the emotional and technical aspects of a completed work.

1) Why did I paint this picture?  I wanted to do a simple waterfall painting and practice more water mist, similar to the cloud mist in my fog painting.

2) How do I feel about the painting?  I am happy with the waterfall and overall painting that held it together.   It has encouraged me to try other landscape paintings with water.

3) What have I learned from doing this piece of art?  I learned how to paint a waterfall! I think that my artistic skills are improving in simplifying a composition, developing a central focus, and paying attention to shapes, perspective, temperature, color harmony and value relationships.

I love this quote from Canadian artist Robert Genn (1936-2014):

                                                                “Fact is, perfection is boring.”