Seascape Painting Tips For Beginners

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Frederick Judd Waugh, Winds And Seas
Frederick Judd Waugh, Winds And Seas

The seascape can be a challenging subject to paint. Water is unpredictable by nature and has translucent and reflective qualities which can be a real pain to deal with.

In this post, I give some seascape painting tips for beginners.

1. Capture the Gesture of the Seascape

Gesture in art usually refers to the gesture of the human body. But I like to think the seascape also has a gesture which describes the general ebbs and flows of the water. Without gesture, your seascape painting may end up looking robotic and disjointed. I see many attempts at the classic crashing wave seascape where the wave looks bolted on to the rest of the ocean, rather than an extension of it.

To capture the gesture of the seascape, consider what the water would look like if you could only use a single line to paint it. This line will represent the most basic gesture of the seascape. You can then use this line to build up structure and form.

Albert Bierstadt, The Wave, 1880, Gesture
Albert Bierstadt, The Wave, 1880

2. Build the Structure of the Seascape

As with gesture, the seascape has a general structure which you should try to capture. This structure may be simple or complex, depending on the type of seascape you are painting.

A calm seascape with glassy water will have a very basic structure. You are essentially just painting a flat surface. A rough seascape during a storm will have a more complex structure as the water chops and churns.

Try breaking the subject down into boxes, cylinders and spheres. You can paint anything with these shapes, including seascapes.

Frederick Judd Waugh, Seascape, Boxes, Cylinders and Spheres
Frederick Judd Waugh, Seascape

3. Understand How to Paint Reflected Light

Water is partially reflective by nature, so some light will bounce off it. This bouncing light is what creates reflections in the water.

Depending on the stillness of the water, the reflections could be a mirror image of the sky above or a shattered mirror of broken color.

A tip for painting accurate reflections is to use darker lights and lighter darks. So the lights will not be as strong and the darks will not be as deep as the sky (or whatever is being reflected).

Dan Scott, New Zealand, 2018
Dan Scott, New Zealand, 2018

I wrote more on this in my post about painting realistic water.

4. Make Use of Broken Color

The broken color technique is perfect for capturing the translucent and reflective nature of water. It also allows you to build up some interesting texture for the water.

If you look closely at the ocean, you will not see just one solid color (even though it may look like that from a distance). You will probably see different blues, greens, yellows and purples on a clear day. During the sunset, you will probably see different reds, oranges, yellows and purples.

The broken color technique involves using unblended strokes of distinct colors. These colors could be closely related (light blue and dark blue), or completely different (red and green). The colors you use will obviously depend on what kind of seascape you are painting.

The stunning painting below by Claude Monet is a great example of broken color.

Claude Monet, Rocks at Belle-Ile, Port-Domois, 1886
Claude Monet, Rocks at Belle-Ile, Port-Domois, 1886

Here is a close-up of the water to give you a better look at all the broken color. Notice how little rending is done by Monet. Without the rest of the painting, this section looks like nothing more than a mess of broken color. But step back and it all comes together.

Claude Monet - Close Up

(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet). 

5. Soft and Hard Edges

You need to pay careful attention to the types of edges you use in your seascape painting. Here is a summary of the different edges you can use:

Hard edge - A very crisp transition between the two shapes.

Soft edge - A smooth transition between two shapes.

Lost edge - A transition between two shapes which is so soft that you can barely see it.

Most of the edges in seascape paintings will be soft or lost. This is because water is not a rigid structure and there is usually a gentle transition from one area of the water to the next. But a few cleverly placed hard edges can have a huge impact amongst mostly soft and lost edges. Here are some appropriate places for hard edges:

  • The top of a crashing wave.
  • The horizon line which separates the sea from the sky on a clear and sunny day. On an overcast or stormy day, a soft edge may be more appropriate.
  • The edge which separates clear water and white foam.
  • Important contours of the water, as demonstrated in my painting below.
Dan Scott, Three Boats at Kingfisher Bay, 2016, Lost, Soft, Hard Edges
Dan Scott, Three Boats at Kingfisher Bay, 2016

6. Match Your Brushwork to the Nature of the Seascape

Here is a general tip which I find particularly useful for seascape painting. Try to match your brushwork to the nature of the seascape.

For example, if you are painting the crashing waves of the turbulent seas, try using broken and exaggerated brushwork.

Joaquín Sorolla, Sea And Rocks - Javea, 1900
Joaquín Sorolla, Sea And Rocks - Javea, 1900

If you are painting the calm water of a morning seascape, then use long and smooth strokes.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Seascape
Ivan Aivazovsky, Seascape

By doing this, you will build up a texture which matches the seascape you are painting. The individual strokes will also reinforce the gesture and structure of the seascape.

Tip: Mix up your brushwork to add a sophisticated level of contrast to your painting. A calm seascape may have small areas of turbulence where you can add some strong brushwork (like where the water is breaking on the shore). A story seascape may have calm areas between the crashing waves where you can add some more subtle brushwork.

7. Create Harmony Using Common Colors

In seascape painting, the water will share many common colors with the sky due to reflected light. For this reason, I will often jump back and forth between the water and sky to make sure there are common colors used for both areas.

For example, say I am painting the highlights on the fluffy white clouds in the sky. I could take these light colors and use them to paint the whitewash on top of the water. I could take the light blues from the clear sky and use them to add some color variance to the water. I can take some of the dark greens and blues from the water and use lighter versions of those colors for the clouds.

I do a lot of this kind of back and forth work when painting seascapes. The end result is usually a sense of harmony through the use of common colors.

(If you want to learn more about color mixing and harmony, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy course.)

Additional Readings

Thanks for Reading!

Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Read more of my articles. 

Seascape Painting Tips For Beginners

38 comments on “Seascape Painting Tips For Beginners”

  1. Thank you! These are really usefull instructions. I ‘m going to subscribe when I’m sure I can make time to work with it. So I hope you continue your messages!

    Reply
  2. All great information, Dan! Teaching students about the structure of waves and how light and dark values formed that structure in their seascapes always amazed them.

    Reply
  3. Hi Dan,Thanks for the info. on Seascapes,found them very very helpful.
    I have been painting watercolours for not very long & have a lot to learn.
    I love painting boats & seascapes,I really don’t know what attracts me
    to them,but love painting them!
    Thanks again, judy

    Reply
  4. Just wanted to say thanks for all of the information and detailed topics. Spent about 6 hours today reading your articles. Thanks your for sharing your knowledge and look forward to more. ๐Ÿ™‚
    -Deion

    Reply
  5. really learning !
    thanks.. with the introduction to intricate details.. and marvelous examples.
    the waves invite the attention..

    Reply
  6. This is my favorite post and lesson so far! It’s very relevant to my interest. Following a recent trip to Maui, I was inspired to create my first seascape. It was really fun but I’d like to do it again with more accurate light reflection, etc. Thanks for your tips Dan.

    Reply
  7. I donโ€™t know how I found you, but Iโ€™m grateful for it. You are a gift to beginners, your explanations and descriptions are so spot on. Iโ€™ve been painting part time for 50 years, and Iโ€™m still learning, still taking a class, and so enjoying your emails, thank you.

    Reply
  8. Very useful tip. I was struggling with painting sea. Especially your teaching on the structure of the sea helped a lot. Thank you Dan.
    Reza

    Reply
  9. Blessed are the ones whose generousity is expressed by sharing knowledge and years of experience and perfectioning in art. It shouldn,t be but it is the way it is.i live in a small town here in Brazil and it is known and famous for a concentration of artist but they are very closed and live apart of we simple mortals . It ,s a shame. I feel progress on my motivation and development in art and I owe it to your articles. Congratulation!

    Reply
  10. Hi Dan
    Thanks for your generosity, in short supply at the moment…
    I paint with watercolour and wondered if the suggestions above would work for that medium?
    Thank, Sheila

    Reply
    • Thanks Sheila. Yes most of the information should be applicable to watercolors. The main difference is the way watercolors are applied and the techniques used. But most of the fundamental concepts are still the same.

      Thanks! Dan

      Reply
  11. Your emails are amazing so very helpful. I have recently started using acrylic paints and find it’s very different to using graphite pencils. (which I did really enjoy) Please keep your emails coming.
    Great read and very informative.
    thank you

    Reply
  12. hi Dan, as the others here, I thank you for taking the time to share your wonderful knowledge in a way that i can understand. i am a complete beginner and because of my limited mobility i cannot go to classes so I am teaching myself to paint by reading post such as yours and by reading books. it is a very hard thing to do! but I LOVE the peace and joy I feel when i practice painting! i have to say Dan that your words are the easiest to follow! i hope to read more of your teachings, thanks a million, Dan, kind regards, Chris

    Reply
  13. Dan: your comprehensive and informative expositions are very helpful indeed. I really appreciate your direct, confident approach to the most complicated of subjects. Inspirational! You are the Steve Irwin of painting.

    Reply
  14. Hello Dan: Your Painting Tips and lessons are very informative and helpful. I sincerely appreciate your detailed explanations and guidance. I would like to enroll in your class as soon as I can. I enjoy very much reading and learning from your postings. Thank you again.

    Reply

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