How to Paint a River With Acrylic

Updated April 17, 2017

Painting a river is an artistic activity that doesn't require any previous art experience. Acrylic paints are relatively simple to use and offer a wide variety of artistic freedom, so if you have never used acrylics, don't worry. With the right tools and a little preparation, you will be able to paint a river with acrylic paints, and in no time you'll have a great piece of art to add to your home.

Choose a photo to use as reference throughout your painting project. Look for photos online, in printed resources such as books or magazines, or use a photo from your last vacation. The right photo will have a clear picture of a river surrounded by a background that you like, which may include trees, mountains or other landscape features.

Place the plastic sheet over your work area in order to protect the table or countertop from paint. Put all of your materials on top of the plastic sheet so that you can easily access them while you work on your project.

Layout the drawing on a sheet of paper. Sketch how you want your painting to appear and include all elements in addition to the river, such as rocks, trees or animals. After you have perfected your layout, lightly sketch the drawing onto the canvas.

Squirt paint onto the palette. Since acrylic dries quickly, only add small amounts of the paint in order to prevent wasting your paint. Start painting the river in small sections. Use a light blue or grey colour of acrylic as your first coat of paint. Don't worry about getting the colour uniform throughout the painting; water is constantly moving and is therefore not the same colour throughout the river. Paint in any background elements such as trees or rocks using appropriate colours, such as greens, browns and greys. Let the paint dry completely before moving on.

Add shadows and highlights to the river in order to create a three-dimensional, realistic image of a river. Use your reference photo as a guide to help you determine where to lighten and darken the water. Add white paint to make highlights and reflections on the river, including the reflected clouds and sunlight. Use a dark blue or grey paint to add shadows near the river banks or rocky areas. Add tree reflections to the water by using a light green or brown; copy the shape of the tree as it would appear on the surface of the water. Allow the paint to dry before adding a second layer, if desired.


Work in a well-ventilated area so that your painting will dry quicker. Clean your brushes thoroughly in water before using a different colour. Save any extra paint by placing it in a small jar with a lid. Store in a cool, dry place.

Things You'll Need

  • Picture of a river
  • Plastic sheet
  • Canvas, any size
  • Acrylic paint
  • Palette
  • Paintbrushes
  • Cup of water
  • Paper towels
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About the Author

Natalie Chardonnet began writing in 2006, specializing in art, history, museums and travel. In 2010, she presented a paper on those subjects at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Chardonnet has a Bachelor of Arts in art history and a minor in Italian studies from Truman State University, in addition to a certificate in French from Ifalpes University in Chambery, France.