Paint Waterfalls That Are Full of Motion

Tips for painting water at

In this photo reference, the water appears to be suspended in time.

Waterfalls are one my favorite painting subjects. They’re quite abundant in nature and most of them have plenty of beauty with which to derive a painting. By default they become focal points. The challenge for a landscape artist is representing water that’s in motion.

Cameras are good tools for artists but they have pitfalls. One of them is the outcome of snapping photos in a fraction of time that is much faster than the human eye can ever perceive. When a reference photo is taken of a waterfall, chances are that the shutter will open in 1/500 of a second, freezing the water’s motion and making it appear to be suspended in time.

Do this experiment: wave your hand in front of your eyes. You can’t make out the hand features. They become a blur. If you were to take a photo during the process you’d see the details in sharp focus.

Tip for Painting Water

Tips for painting water and waterfalls at

This oil painting clearly shows how the soft edges contribute to the sense of water in motion. You can see a hint of definition at the top of the water. The edges get softer as the thrust gains momentum.

An untrained artist will use the photo as a reference and paint the waterfall as it appears in the photo. This will compromise the sense of motion. I recommend you ignore the photo and paint the falling water by blurring the edges, maybe leaving just a bit of defined edges right before gravity takes over and makes it topple over. This will make it a nice eye-grabber.

The edges should be more diffused toward the bottom of the waterfall. Adding mist where the waterfall meets the river will also enhance the illusion of water in motion. You can also depict mist in the background to accentuate depth. The hard edges of the rocks, in contrast with the soft edges of the water, is very pleasing to the viewer. (A side note: when you blur the legs of animals that are walking or running, they will also appear to move.)


To learn more about visual paths and how to move the viewer’s eye you can find “The Complete Essentials of Painting Grass and Snow” and other video courses Northlight has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes, “Landscape Painting Essentials.”

Johannes Vloothuis is a regular contributor at and teaches online art classes with WetCanvas Live. To reach Vloothuis for these classes and to acquire teaching materials visit Come back soon for his next blog post with more tips on how to paint.

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