Waterfalls: a landscape painting stalwart


In Chinese brush painting many fundamentals come in groups: four treasures, four gentlemen, six principles, and even 17 types of strokes for folds in clothing. How unusual that the main elements used in landscape painting—trees, rocks (including mountains), clouds, and waterfalls—do not have a group name. I propose the four stalwarts.


Horsey Creek is one of the larger creeks near the farm where I grew up. When snow melt adds to its volume in spring it turns into a raging torrent with many small falls and rapids. Our creek remains nameless as it normally carries much less water than this one.

A stalwart (noun) is defined as “a loyal, reliable, and hardworking supporter or participant in an organization or team.” I cannot think of a better term for those basic elements we employ when constructing a Chinese landscape painting!

Admittedly there is a term for a style of traditional CBP that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes using a brush and ink, rather than more conventional paints: shan shui or “mountain-water”.

Water equals wealth

In traditional Chinese paintings, mountains, for their power and majestic manner, are frequently used to symbolize solid family fortune and fame, while waterfall means your fortune and wealth will be coming to you continuously. In Chinese culture water symbolizes wealth, and the waterfall represents profits pouring in from all sides

In China, mountains were long viewed as sacred places, home of the immortals. See this site for more.

Here’s a site that elaborates on the auspicious messaging of a traditional landscape painting.

Waterfalls equal marrow and blood

In my study of waterfall painting I was surprised to discover a range of insights into the nature of water running downhill. I kind of felt like the little girl I once was, playing in the creek on our farm arranging and re-arranging rocks to reroute the water’s path, create pools at the banks, and make dams that would eventually give way.

I found five helpful resources in my CBP library, and they all provided different insights into the essence of waterfalls. Mind you, three of them referenced one: the Mustard Seed Garden Manual.

waterfall books

These five books are my main resources for this topic. See annotations below.

There are two basic approaches to painting waterfalls: one is to paint the rocky banks first and then insert strokes to define the water, the other is to create the path of the water first and then fill in the rocks that would permit that flow to happen. Either way makes sense.

Among the gems of wisdom sprinkled through my instructional materials:

“In a picture a road has direction and water has a source”.

“Spend five days painting a stream, ten days painting a rock.”

“Consider both the appearance and the spirit of the scene you would paint.”

“Waterfalls form the structure of rocks, rocks form the structure of mountains.”

“Whether trickling, flowing, spraying, foaming, splashing, or in rivers or in oceans, (water) is the very blood and marrow of Heaven and earth. Blood nourishes the embryo and the marrow nourishes the bones.”

“Water in all of its many forms is the feminine element of a landscape, soft and yielding amidst the massive masculinity of the rocks and mountains.”

“The strength of the water is its ability to flow steadily on its course, overcoming all obstacles in its path, and wearing down all resistance to its fluid movement, until eventually the water itself shapes its surroundings.”

I also tripped over some descriptive terms that sounded poetic: silver streak, horsetail, white ribbon, white thread cascades.


  1. The Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight has a single page entry that offers enough guidance to get you started. She does rocks first, then the water.
  2. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting provides 12 full pages of direction with illustrations on waterfall painting, from high streams to low ones, from multi-tiered falls, to single ripples, and even one thundering under a rocky bridge.
  3. The How and Why of Chinese Painting by Dianna Kan has two pages of guidance. She advocates strongly for the path of the water first, elaborating on the feminine nature of water cited above.
  4. Caroline and Susan Self offer three pages of illustrated direction in The Art of Chinese Brush Painting. They describe a fun ‘splash ink’ technique: you wet four sheets of paper and then splash or dribble on dark ink where rocky banks might be located so that it penetrates all four, separate the sheets and then define on each how the water would flow through the splotches.
  5. Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting has seven pages of full compositions demonstrating different kinds of waterfalls; both his narrative and illustrations are clearly based on the examples given in the MSGM. Both are unclear as to the preferred order of painting (water or banks first) but they offer a wide variety of kinds of waterfalls, and also stress the relationship between the water and surrounding rocks.


I also looked for demonstration videos and found two:

1. First up is a guy with a wide dry brush in two Youtube postings, here’s one, and then the second one.

2. And then from Virginia Lloyd-Davis is a promo demo for a longer instructional video for waterfall painting. She uses a medium-sized mountain hair brush on rice paper and shows how to add fall colors and mountain mist to the scene. Her point that ‘less is more’ when it comes to placing strokes to define the water tumbling around rocks is repeated throughout all of my resources above.

Start at the source

The key characteristic of water is running, according to Xiongcai, and a stream thus gives life to a mountain. Whether it is narrow or wide, trickling or cascading, gurgling or thundering is all determined by the rock around it. A painter should thus spend considerable time reflecting on that relationship before putting brush to paper.

How better to do so than actually parking yourself at the bank of a stream or waterfall and thoroughly immersing yourself in its essence? In the past the extent of my contemplation at waterside has been more along the lines of the poem by Frederick George Scott (why hurry little river, why hurry to the sea….)

On a recent trip into my home province’s northern reaches I got to sit by not one but two wonderful waterfalls and study just how their rocky bounds defined them. One location, Rainbow Falls near McBride, BC was a familiar haunt. I had visited it often in my childhood. The rocky ledges have not changed noticeably in over six decades. The falls appear differently depending on the volume of water tumbling through the rocky niche.


The second was new to me, but oh how very ancient the setting is! The Ancient Forest located some 94 kilometers west of McBride near Dome Creek has trees estimated to be 1000 or more years old, one measuring at least 16 feet in diameter! In less than a decade since their discovery, volunteer work crews have worked on walkways, including a universally accessible portion that leads to Treebeard Falls.


Note the mossy rocks that surround this waterfall.

Tree Beard Falls is in the Ancient Forest, Driscoll Range. Along the trail was this inspirational poem, allegedly directly from the trail to me:


Without water! Water everywhere,

our Ancient Forest would be bare.

Storms pushed from Pacific sky,

crash upon the mountain high.

Rain and snow meet, and dally,

then settle in the Robson Valley.

Winter snows get up and run,

under the warming springtime sun.

Water races down the forest slope,

searching for the Pacific with hope,

quenching a thirsty forest on its way,

and keeping the threat of fires at bay.

Precious water, please never fail.

–Your friend, the Ancient Forest Trail

(We were fortunate the day we tramped through to meet up with the real poet—Nowell Senior—the leader of a group of volunteers from Prince George which has invested thousands of hours in developing the site for public access. Bless them all, starting with the grad student who brought the existence of the trees to public attention less than a decade ago.)

China’s own

I wondered about the inspiration for traditional shan shui paintings and turned to the internet. Here are China’s top five waterfalls.

And here you can see an assortment of Chinese paintings of waterfalls.

I can’t really leave the topic of inspirational falls without acknowledging Canada’s most famous one, which happens to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Niagara Falls.

Just how that flow of water has altered its course and eroded banks over time is well documented.  I know Niagara Falls is much photographed, but am unaware of any iconic paintings.  Here’s a tourist image that captures the full breathtaking spanse of water that forms the Canadian and American arms to the waterfall.


My waterfall studies:

I decided to experiment with both approaches (1. rocks first and define the water flow, then 2. water path first and follow with banks and obtrusions). The first method is sometimes called negative painting, i.e. you paint in the objects that the water tumbles over and around, then light strokes to show shading of water. I also contemplated working through the examples given in the MSGM, and using one of Xiongcai’s full compositions as a model for my first full waterfall painting. My ultimate goal was to capture the spirits of those two I visited this summer, Rainbow and Treebeard Falls.

Here are my first monochrome waterfall studies, starting simple and working up to a more elaborate scene.


This small monochrome study is based on one of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual illustrations of a multi-tired waterfall between rocky banks.


Also based on the Mustard Seed Garden Manual, this study shows wider falls of lesser height.


Another study inspired by the MSGM; this one shows a waterfall with a stream feeding into it at a higher elevation.  The closer waterfall marks look a tad awkward but the softer tones for more distant peaks worked out well. The layered rock shelf on the left is exactly what I need to do when painting my Rainbow Falls.


This study was based on Diana Kan’s instructions; rocky banks went in first and then I added waterfall marks.

I next tackled a monochrome waterfall composition based on one of the seven in Xiongcai’s book on landscape painting.  Now that I have the progression photos set up as a slideshow, I can see it is ready for adding color in the manner Virginnia Lloyd-Davies describes.  I could also turn the painting over and add some misty shapes in the upper left. I put it into a slideshow to reveal the ‘water first’ method.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With so much inspiration I had to leave color application for another day, and attempts at rendering Rainbow and Treebeard Falls held promise for several days at least.







This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting landscapes, painting waterfalls, water compositions. Bookmark the permalink.

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