How to Paint a River

Learning how to paint water is often a challenge for artists, but a simple river painting is a good place to start, for rivers often consist of simple lines and colours, as opposed to a wide stretch of water, which is often the feature of painting lakes.


A River Oil Painting


Good visual resources are important when painting rivers for the first time. This painting demonstration on painting a river consists of simple lines and an element of recession. The photograph can be simplified into simple and uncluttered tonal areas, which ensures the river remains at the focal point. The following tips on painting rivers will help:
  • Like many things in nature, rivers adhere to certain rules. A river of ribbon like proportions, for instance, will appear to narrow as it recedes into the distance.
  • Similarly, the proportions of a winding river will appear to flatten as it recedes.
  • The tonal values of a river will generally appear to fade in the distance, and on misty weather, this effect will be pronounced
  • The beginner may be tempted to paint a river blue or grey, but like most bodies of water, rivers can contain the most unexpected colours, from crimsons to violets. Even on murky weather, rivers can contains a complexity of neutrals
  • Pay special attention to the outlines of the river, such as the banks and localised reflections, as sensitive observation in this area will result in a more effective painting of a river. Avoid harsh lines
  • Ensure the river keys into the rest of the landscape painting, in that it is not to pale or dark. Standing back from the painting will help the artist make accurate judgements on the river’s tonal value
  • Pay attention to the texture of the river’s surface, which will give the viewer an appreciation of the weather conditions, such as localised ripples or smooth areas. Avoid using the same brush marks to express crests all over the river.

Art Materials Required

  1. A good quality and simple photograph of a river
  2. Oil colours: titanium white, pthalo blue, ultramarine, cadmium red, permanent rose, cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, viridian, burnt sienna and burnt umber
  3. Art board sized 12” x 16” (30.5 x 40.5cm)
  4. Round sables sizes 3 and 6
  5. A wide bristle brush
  6. A palette consisting of a china plate
  7. Small pot of artists’ white spirits
  8. Soft pencil
Painting Demonstration on How to paint rivers
The river composition was transferred onto the art board via a soft pencil. With a soft sable, I mixed ultramarine, permanent rose and a little white and started at the head of the river and worked my way down. A little more ultramarine and permanent rose was introduced into the foreground areas. Rivers can appear to widen dramatically as it approaches. For large areas, I used a bristle brush.


The Colour of Mountains


With the river blocked in, I began on the mountains, which consisted of burnt sienna, cadmium red, permanent rose, burnt umber and white. The colours in varying proportions were applied via a thin sable. Contrasting colour and tone suggests sunlit areas moving over the mountains. The marshlands flanking the river are important in making the river key in to the rest of the painting. I stood back from the painting to ensure I had the right tonal value and I pasted on burnt sienna, a little pthalo blue and a touch of white for the distance.
The Blues of Water and Skies
I briskly painted the sky with white and a little burnt sienna and ultramarine for the cloud bases; pthalo blue and white were used for the sky between. With the art board covered, I made adjustments to the river to ensure the painting made sense. I added streaks of pale blue over the river’s surface to suggest reflections from the clouds. I then softened the river bank with a clean sable to rid of harsh lines. I completed the painting by dabbing in the trees at the distance.
This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon. © Rachel Shirley 2010