From Pencil to Paper: How to Draw a River Scene with Realistic Detail

Peter used Faber Castell Polychromos pencils for this Devon landscape that shows us how to draw a river with rocks. These are an oil based pencil which allows a fine point for detailed work such as this. 

This landscape step-by-step originates from a photo taken on the Devon/Cornwall border where the River Tavy comes down from the moors through a narrow valley past the villages of Peter Tavy and Mary Tavy.

There is a bridge just below this spot which has also featured in a pencil image done on site during the same visit. The photo here was used as the basis of the picture shown just below it. You will see that he opened out the sky area between the trees at the centre top, and included more vegetation on the right hand side.  He has also included one or two other images taken at this spot so that you can get the feel of the place.  Clicking on the first image will allow you to download the reference photo that you can use if you wish to learn how to draw a river scene yourself.

I will then let Peter tell the story of the drawing in his own words. 

Tavy Rocks completedCompleted drawing of Tavy Rocks
Additional photo reference
Photo reference including bridge

Starting the drawing using polychromos pencils

This picture was completed using Faber Castell Polychromos pencils. You could just as easily use either Caran d’Ache Pablo, Derwent Coloursoft or Prismacolor and select appropriate colours from the greens and browns.

I have not given all the actual colours I used for this drawing - the purpose of the exercise is to look at the way layers of colour are developed to show the many greens and browns found in nature.  Remember that you can easily adjust a colour by applying a further layer over the top to either warm or cool the under shade and/or darken or lighten it.

Above is the original outline drawing which identifies the main features of the landscape. You can click on the image to open a larger pdf of this sketch. 

After transferring the outline sketch to the paper, use coloured pencils to lightly draw in the main elements. You will need to be able to remove the colour where necessary, so restrict the pressure you use. If you use too much pressure with the pencil point you will indent the working surface and the deeper colour applied may well stain the paper fibres too much. One of the mid toned polychromos pencils in grey was used here. 

Drawing in the main elements of the scene

Next  I worked the grey further to identify the areas of shadow - keeping my shading strokes as even as possible and also following the shape of the feature. Tree shading will follow the lines of the branches; water shading will always be horizontal; rock shading will follow the line of the surface. 

I have also used some green and brown to identify the foliage in the background and the shadow of the rocks under the brown peaty water. Notice how I have stretched the image to make the picture more rectangular. At the same time this gives me the opportunity to open up the sky at the right centre. The sky will be left the natural white of the paper, with no pencils worked into it.

Adding the shadows under the rocks

It is now a case of steadily building up depth of colour with a handful of polychromos pencils.  

Let's have a first look at the right hand side and the grasses on the river bank. I have made more of them than they show in the photo and emphasised the contrast between the tall grass strokes and the rounded dry stones alongside them.  

See how I have worked the background trees down towards the grass tops and darkened the lower area of background leaf to highlight the grass stalks in the sun.

The background tree foliage is done using the scribble strokes discussed elsewhere in the Topics site and there have been three or four overlapping colours applied.  The edge adjoining the grass is left with jagged strokes worked downwards.  

The grass itself is worked upwards towards the same jagged edge and at the same time downwards towards the lower/nearer grass stalks,

Completing the background

In this close up I have also developed the shadows in the dry rocks below the grass stems, and you can get an idea of the process from the large foreground rock shown on the extreme right.

Keep an eye on the line where rocks meet water. Sometimes the waterline will be light where moving water reflects light and sometimes dark where there is still water in shadow.

I have re-arranged the rocks in the water to follow a more artistic shape with a curve running from the left front corner back to the right hand distance.

We don’t need all these stones to be included to give the right feeling of the scene.

Below is the full picture at this point. 

Adding more rocks in the water
The progress of the Tavy Rocks painting so far

You will note that there has also been some development on the left hand side with the grassed area opened out and strong light green used to introduce light behind the trees on the river bank.  This is ‘artistic licence’ being used to the full.  

We need to show an attractive picture which gives the feeling of the tumbling moorland river.  That twisted branch that comes down over the water is essential and has retained all its corkscrew shape.  The water has had a flesh red and orange introduced, to give the peaty feel.

The far trees in the centre are kept looking quite light and a blue green has been added to show the distance.  

Dark green has been introduced in the centre left to highlight the sun on the leaves of the centre tree.  The main centre tree has had layers of sepia, dark green and green gold pencils on the trunk.  Green gold is a most useful landscape colour and is pretty much unique to Polychromos pencils. It warms up other colours nicely and is totally transparent.   

I have reduced the amount of foliage in the distance on the extreme left as well, to introduce some more sky into this area.   

A battery eraser is most useful to pick out areas of light in the overall leaf cover.  It is much easier to put in overall colour and then ‘lift out’ white than try and work around white patches.

I have retained some very warm colour in the centre water to provide a colour focus.

If you get areas too bright with colour, don’t worry.  You can always tone down the colour later with further layers.

Completing the lit areas of rocks

I have now started on the foreground rocks.  Notice the lines of ripples in the front. It just remains to check the overall image and make sure that reflections match the rocks above.  

I will also apply some more sepia to enhance areas of deep shadow and sharpen up edges. At this stage you will ignore the original photo reference and simply check that your own version of the picture makes sense. The completed drawing using Polychromos pencils is shown below.

Completed drawing of Tavy RocksTavy Rocks

Points to remember

  • Work dark into light to define grasses and foliage.
  • Use a battery eraser to lift out small areas of contrasted light colour.
  • If the reference photo is too cluttered, or if it includes elements that are unsuitable for your picture, leave things out. 
  • Move things around if it improves the composition.
  • Try to have areas of overlapping contrast to add interest. 
  • Enhance foreground colour and reduce colour in the distance to provide a separation between foreground/middle ground and background elements. 

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