Tips on painting waves in watercolor

For years I wondered how do you capture the ocean with paint? I decided to figure it out and painted the ocean over and over (and over). I learned and improved with each painting. Years later I still enjoy painting the ocean. 

Coastal inspired art | watercolor seascape by Eileen McKenna

Here are my top tips for painting waves:

Study your reference photo. 

To accurately paint or draw any subject you have to study that subject to really see the details  – colors, lights and darks, shapes, composition, etc.

Identify the main colors and where the colors change.

  • Often the distant ocean is a darker blue. As the water gets closer it gets lighter and greener.
  • Near the breaking waves, where the sand is being churned up, the water is greener.
  • The shallow water close to the shore is brown.
Easy Watercolor Seascape online video lesson for beginners

Paint Horizontal Strokes

After painting your base colors use a flat brush to add horizontal lines.  Horizontal strokes in your painting make things look flatter. You can add dark thin horizontal strokes on top of the distant ocean color (waves in the distance). Add thicker strokes for cresting waves near the break area (where the waves are breaking).

Painting a crashing wave in watercolor

Use White Gouache 

Use White Gouache to add waves in the distance, crashing waves, foam etc. White Gouache is thicker (more opaque) than watercolor and you can use it to paint over watercolor.

Painting Waves in the distance

  • Simply use a flat brush to add distant breaking waves

Painting Crashing waves

  • Use gouache to create the crashing waves. Your brush strokes should mimic the motion of the wave.
  • Add grey shadows within the breaking wave to add depth.
  • Use a dry brush or blot with a tissue to create spray coming off the wave
Blue Wave #11 by Eileen McKenna https://shop.eileenmckenna.com/

Painting foam

  • Paint the water near the shore brown and use white gouache to add the foam on top of it.
  • A dark brown line at the edge of the foam makes it look thicker and more realistic. You can soften the line with a damp brush.

Want to learn more about painting seascapes?

Easy Watercolor Seascape online video lesson for beginners

I share my step by step process for painting seascapes in watercolor.

Choose the format that works best for you:

Printable Watercolor Seascape Tutorial

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