Pastel Tutorial | How to Paint Water

There’s pleasure to be found in painting bodies of water of every kind—from lakes and rivers to coves and oceans—but the rushing waters of a mountain stream are particularly exciting. Albert Handell shares his step-by-step tutorial of painting falling water, as featured in the August 2010 issue of The Pastel Journal.


How to Paint Water Rushing from a Mountain Stream



I chose to capture the scene in a mixed-media pastel painting, starting with a pencil drawing, then creating a watercolor underpainting, and finishing with pastel.

  • 16×20 sheet of UART sanded pastel paper (500P grit), which has a light gray tone
  • I have my paper dry-mounted onto 4-ply, 100-percent rag museum board to add support, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around for taping purposes.
  • A mixture of brands of pastels, including Eberhard Faber hard pastels and the softer Unison, Schmincke and Sennelier pastels. I don’t worry about starting with hard pastels and moving to soft. Rather, I just go for the color and mix all my brands.
  • A soft-lead 2B Venus pencil for drawing, and for “feathering,” a soft vine charcoal in round sticks sharpened to a fine point on a sandpaper block.
  • Sennelier Latour fixative
  • Artist-grade watercolor for underpainting—a combination of Winsor & Newton, Holbein and Schmincke. My favorite colors (in any brand) are Payne’s gray, Hooker’s green dark, Van Dyke brown, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, burnt sienna and Davy’s gray. I prefer the Schmincke brand’s violet manganese and Indian red.


Step 1: The Drawing

To begin the drawing, I establish the large areas of the subject. I don’t draw lightly as I don’t necessarily want to hide the drawing. Instead, my drawing is broad and dark, and could become part of the finished painting. At this point, the placement and proportions of shapes are very important. I place the waterfall—the center of interest—to the left of center to create positive space. The background is left empty as a negative space at this stage, but I establish both the water and the rocks, as the two interrelate.

the drawing | water painting

Step 1: Drawing



Step 2: The Underpainting

Next, I block in large areas of color using watercolors. Because this is an underpainting, I can apply the watercolor with abandon, while leaving areas of untouched paper to indicate the lights. Once I realize where the light areas are, I can subdue them later and blend them into the darker surrounding areas, which I begin doing in Step 3.

the underpainting | water painting

Step 2: Underpainting



Step 3: The Buildup

In this middle stage, in which I begin the buildup of pastel, the first thing I paint serves to tie together the waterfall with the reddish rocks that border it on both sides. I darken the waterfall and suggest some additional rocks within it. In actuality, waterfalls separate rock formations with water literally cutting into and separating rocks; it’s something I keep in mind as I proceed. Next, I consider the foreground and add some stronger colors for the water pools.

the buildup of pastel | water painting

Step 3: Building up Pastel



Step 4: The Unification

I continue to build up pastel, painting every area of the picture except the background, which I continue to leave as negative space for now. I apply pastel to the foreground water, massing together the darker areas of the water with the nearby rocks, eliminating the light areas of the water that I left exposed in Step 3. In this way, I’m pulling together these areas and unifying them. I intensify and mass-in the foreground water and rocks using an assortment of middle-tone colors. I then paint some dark purples and dark reddish browns to indicate some upright planes beneath the water itself.

adding more color | water painting

Step 4: Unifying Areas of Pastel



Step 5: The Finishing Touch

To get from Step 4 to the finish is just a lot of fun and hard work. I completely finish the waterfall by darkening a little here, a little there, and emphasizing a few dark rocks to show through the falls. Before I continue, I make sure that the waterfall is resolved to my satisfaction. Next, I strengthen the colors in the rocks that surround the falls. Then I paint the foreground water and rocks. For final touches, I suggest the background behind the waterfall, adding interest to that area, but not so much that it would compete with the foreground.

finished product | water painting

The Mountain Stream (mixed-media pastel, 16 x 20) by Albert Handell



Read more of Albert Handell’s tips for painting the ocean, water reflections and more.

Click here to view more water-inspired paintings


Find the full feature on Albert Handell painting rushing water in the August 2010 issue of The Pastel Journal.




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