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