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Painting Seascapes




With the risk of boring you, but considering the fact if you don't know the sea you can never paint it.
Here is the sea.......How does the wind make waves? Friction between the atmosphere and the surface of the water will produce a wave.

A breeze of two knots or more, gravity waves begin to form as wind drags across the water. Ripples at first, waves continue to grow as wind blows. In fact, now the wind transfers its' energy to the water since it can push directly against the backs of the ripples, the more jagged and uneven the water surface is, the more there is for the wind to push against.
Ripples change into chops when the length of the chop in a given area stretches beyond five seconds. Guess- what? It is then called "SEA".

Waves grow when the wind transfers energy to the water more efficiently.
How large wind waves begin, is a great function of strength, length of time and how much open water is there. Lets' leave it at that.

By the way, the largest wave ever recorded was Feb 7th, 1933, North Pacific Ocean by the ship U.S.S. Ramado who measured it to be 112 feet tall.
Believe all this information is right, all high school stuff you know. Its' been a couple of years. .




I like this painting.

John Pike once said "I'm afraid that many painters who don't really know the sea have a tendency to paint foam and surf as a sort of light, airy, cotton-candy, blown gently by the wind".



I mixed up three puddles of pigments, Burnt Sienna, French Ultra Marine and Cerulean Blue.
The sea must reflect the sky color or close to it.

We are now going to paint the sky. Wet the paper.
I Applied French Ultra Marine Blue to the top right corner by just touching the very point of a loaded number 14 Round Brush into the wet paper.


Let's slowly work towards the left leaving areas untouched to give the impression of white fluffy clouds
Mix Burnt Sienna with Cerulean Blue for a pale Gray, which was painted in the areas left untouched giving us a White/Gray cloud
Not much brush work (NO back and forth strokes).



Weak (lots of water) Raw Sienna, Sap Green, and one of the Blue's was laid in for the distance cliffs.
Now take another damp brush and just wipe across the hill tops in a couple of places.



Started painting the cliffs  with Burnt Sienna, and just touching with the point of a brush loaded with Ultramarine Blue here and there (just to make the cliffs darker in places.)

Work a few swells into the ocean with a whitecap or two as they approach the fore-ground, getting a little darker as they roll towards you.


Stand back and now look at the painting and you will see great depth created by the cliffs and the waves.
This needs to be painted with passion, hear the roar, smell the fresh water, feel the wave, see the wave,  tell me with the brush, "Jim you are going to get wet".


This part is the trickiest part of the breaker.



This is a general outline with a quilters pen (it disappears when contact with water occurs) where the breaker will have turned over.


This is being painted wet in wet and you will see half of the line has disappeared when the water hit it.


The paper was turned upside down and a mixture of Phalo Green P.G.7 and Phalo Blue P.B.15 was applied to the wet area and then I let it run down the paper doing its own thing.  This is not the time to be messing with it, with a paint brush.



You can see that it is creeping down the paper. It's still upside down.  Actually the paint will be running up to the top of the wave.  This top has very little water in it, it's almost like a sheet of water and it will not need a whole lot of color.  Here's tip, if the paint starts to be a little strong as shown in this example, don't be afraid to turn it the right side up and drop some water at the top and let it run down to be base of the wave.  There is a lot of volume of sea water down there at the base, compared to the top of the wave


This shows the top of the wave and a very dark bottom.  In fact I might scrub out some of the top. This is not the image that appears in the finished painting.  This was done separately for illustration purposes.



Let the viewer know this wave is angry.
Communicate your feelings through this painting.
The challenge you set yourself up for was to capture a wave using a mix of hard and soft edges.
So this is what I would do, paint mostly wet-into-wet on damp paper to achieve a balance of soft and hard edges.

  • Save the white area.
  • Variegated washes.
  • Think about the direction of the brush strokes.
  • Light overhead
  • Avoid solid edges in the wave.
  • Feel the energy of the busting wave.


Some points to consider- Hard edges draw the viewers eye giving definition, they tend to bring things forward, particularly if they are painted warm.
Soft edges suggest distance and reduce the amount of attention..

Always remember edges are important, watch where you place them and if possible use a mixture of both. It is possible in this case.




Whilst this is drying lay in a wash for the rocks with Raw Sienna, dropping in Burnt Sienna in a few spots .Prior to this Drawing gum (frisket) was placed on the  base of the would be rock, many small dots indicating spray Also notice the shape of the foam and direction





You are standing on a pier or jetty, the swift approaching ocean wave gives you the impression of a wall of water moving in your direction.  In actuality, although the wave is moving towards you, the water is NOT .......- SURPRISED.
If the water was moving with the wave, the ocean and everything on it would be moving (racing) into the shore with catastrophic results.
Not convinced?  Then, spread a blanket on the floor, knee on one end, now snap waves down its length, the blanket stay's put, and "blanket waves" ripple through it.
.  This is the "lifecycle" of ocean wave.

  • Winds blowing across the water's surface raise ripples, then chops.
  • An area called "fetch" is formed atmospheric energy is transferred to the water at or near the surface.
  • Once the sea leaves the fetch area, patterns are organized into swells.
  • Swells and waves start rotating in circular orbits.
  • As swells begin to be affected by a shoaling bottom, they slow down and raise up.
  • When the wave becomes critically steep they peak up and break up.  The shallow water no longer allows the complete internal circular rotation.
  • Plunging breaker hits the shore expanding the last of the wave energy.
  • There is always a rush back of a receding wave after it has rebounded from a rock and meets the oncoming one.
  • When this happens, it's like two waves breaking in opposite directions, producing a mass of broken water and foam.  Welcome to the battle of the elements.



This is a photograph showing tonal values in a sepia rather than color; it's easier to see the values this way.  The left side of the wave has just met a rock going left to right.  The bottom right previous wave has decided to go right to left as a kind of a back wash.  Just like people do sometimes not knowing which direction they are going in.  In this wave the situation it is producing boiling foam, may be in people it produces boiling blood pressure.

Is Mother Nature trying to tell you something?  In waves the battle is over in seconds.People ?????

Boiling foam always seems to form in circles or elliptical shapes Please don't ask why



Now that you can see and visualize a breaking wave, you will always see a mental picture of a wave.  Will be much easier to paint now -





So let's start with this quick demo on painting boats.


Pencil sketch just for the two boats.  You may not be able to see the faint lines.



Applied Drawing Gum to the areas that needed to be white.  Not sure about Drawing Gum - go to "Techniques" (left side home page) - click up will come Masking Fluid.




Winsor Green (Thalo Green - P.G.7 on your tube) - mixed with Permanent Alizarin Crimson.

Paint in trees and reflections working from right to left.

Add Burnt Sienna far left.




Foreground using Winsor Yellow, Raw and Burnt Sienna.

Washed (large brush)  Yellow leaving areas for tide pools, while wet paint both Sienna's into the Yellow.

Paint in tide pools, Light Blue.


This should be a light gray, but the camera was acting-up a little - SORRY



Paint in boats, you can try any colors you like (not happy with my choice).

But create form (volume) with varying the values of the colors, do not paint solid colors, it will cause the boats to look flat, pasted on look.




When the whole painting was dry.  Washed a light Perm. Rose over the whole sheet (maybe I should have not done that).

But I wanted to emphasize a point if you lay a wash over existing painted items, nothing bad will happen, using a very light touch, do not go over any spot twice.  Get in softly and get out quickly.




Added a few details on foreground, wiped out base of distant trees.





Drawing Gum by Peblo is the best masking fluid to use Period.

This was applied to the area where we need to show white caps and foam in water.


Masking was removed in sections, keeping in mind the direction of the water flow. I was trying to show the foam.By rubbing with my finger, see how the foam circles have appeared.



I Painted in the rocks with Raw and Burnt Sienna, Ultra Marine Blue and Perm. Rose.

Painted sky very subdued with Ultra Marine Blue + a touch of Perm. Rose letting them both mix on paper that was pre-wet.


Painted in the wave action, with brushstrokes of Ultra Marine Blue and Thalo Blue in the direction of the water flow.



Started developing the wave cresting in the center of the painting.


The composition is fairly simple, four shapes, sky, waves and two rock formations.

The rock positions keep the eye from leaving until you have seen the breaking wave.


The only drawing was the horizon line, the general area of the rocks and position breaking wave.

Painted the distant waves with horizontal strokes, when dry, removed the masking from these distant waves.

After removing the masking around the large wave and run off around the rocks, places some darker blue at the base of the white foam that was rolling over.

I used a lot of dry brush techniques in this painting on the rocks and on the wave.


  • 140 lb. Cold Press Watercolor Paper.


  •  # 14 Round Brush Kolinsky Sable
  •  # 6 Sable Rigger


  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Winsor Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Perm. Rose


Here is a painting that was painted in class some time ago.


Looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes, maybe a Blue Green would have been a little more appropriate for the main wave This green color is produced by the presence of dissolving bubbles of aerated water,such coloring also appears in the wake of a moving boat




Here are some more Swipe File images of "Breaking Waves". 




I caught the green look in this photograph. Using a telephoto lens.






This is a painting by Winslow Homer.




Again very simple composition, emphasizing that he needed no more than one or two waves and perhaps just a single rock for a successful painting. There are five shapes.

Do you see how he visualized every form as three dimensional? Rock modeled in distinct planes of light and shadow, look at the cloud of foam from dark to light to dark again giving it roundness and substance.


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