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How to Paint the Ocean with Watercolor and Gouache

How to paint the ocean in watercolor and gouache | tutorial | step by step instructions | painting tips
The beach has been the backdrop of my life. It’s where I was born and raised, played, worked as a lifeguard…and now enjoy summer days with my family. I spend a lot of time learning and practicing capturing the ocean in watercolor.

How to Paint the Ocean with Watercolor and Gouache:

1. Reference photo. I always work from a photo. I have the luxury of taking my own ocean photos, but even if you can’t, there are plenty of photos online to use as reference.

2. Tape your paper to a board. My favorite paper is Fluid watercolor blocks. I use the cardboard back of an old, larger pad and painter’s tape.

3. Tape your horizon line. To ensure a straight line I tape it. I eyeball how much from the photo and measure and mark with pencil both sides of my paper so it’s straight. Put the tape above your marks.
Tape your horizon for a straight edge when painting the ocean in watercolor

4. Mix your colors. I use ultramarine, cadmium red, and cadmium yellow and mix them to achieve the different shades of the ocean. Since the ocean is many different colors I find this to be the best way to achieve the natural looking colors I’m looking for. The color of the distant ocean is usually bluer, the waves that are closer are greener, and underneath the foam is brown water. Very wet sand reflects the sky and has a bluish tint. As the sand gets further from the ocean (and is drier), it is lighter.

5. The first layer. I paint with a brush, wet with paint, onto dry paper. I start at the horizon with a bluer mix for the distant ocean and switch to a greener mix for closer waves. For the underneath of the foam of the crashing wave I add a little grey (made from my mix of blue, red, and yellow) and light greens. In front of the wave, I use a browner blue mix and closer to the shore, where the foam is, I use a brown mix. The sand closes to the water’s edge is darkest. From there I lighten the brown (make more translucent) with water for the drier sand. I cover most of the paper.
How to paint the ocean in watercolor and gouache | painting tips
Let your first layer dry. The first layer often looks like a blob – don’t be discouraged! Watercolor is all about building up the layers and nothing is really permanent. You can manipulate and even erase the paint (by touching it with a wet brush and blotting the brush on a paper towel).

6. Adjusting the first layer – If your first layer is a bit washed out, add more paint to darken it. Use your photo as your guide. You can use this time to add darks and lights in the distant ocean, as well as within the wave in the foreground. If your first layer is very dark, you can use a wet brush to pull up some of the paint, to create highlights.

7. The sky. When your ocean at the horizon is completely dry, gently peel up the tape. The simplest way to paint the sky is to start at the top of the painting (I always turn it clockwise to paint the sky). Paint with a brush saturated with cerulean blue at the top of the painting (on your right if you turned it). Test the saturation of cerulean blue on a scrap of paper before touching your painting. Paint a few thick strokes, then dip your brush into your water, and paint another few strokes touching your first one. Paint to horizon line, dipping in water again if needed. You are watering down the paint as you get closer to the horizon line. The sky is lighter at the horizon and more saturated as you look up from there. Read this post if you want to explore painting more complex skies.
How to paint the ocean in watercolor and gouache | painting tips

8. The foam – White gouache. Add the foam in the break of the wave and closer to the shore with white gouache. Gouache is more opaque than watercolor so you can paint with white over other colors. Use a flat brush and create overlapping horizontal zig zag lines for the foam close to shore. The flat brushes I use are: 1/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″. In the breaking wave use different techniques – with a round brush paint circular strokes, and paint small dots or specks (stippling).
Painting with gouache
How to paint the ocean in watercolor and gouache | painting tips

Let this layer dry.

9+. Adding details. Compare your painting to your reference photo. They do not need to be exact! What areas need more detail, highlights, shadows, or color changes, etc.? This can involve several additional layers, with drying time in between, or just one or two. It all depends on the look you are going for – how loose, how realistic.

Details I add:

In the foam: I usually add more shadows (with dark brown or grey) within the foam, and blend it with the gouache, and more white gouache zig zag strokes on top of that.

In the crashing wave: There is a lot of depth in a crashing wave. I usually add shadows on top of the gouache and then add more gouache on top of that. Add little white dots for spray. I sometimes pat my finger on top of these so they look more natural. Depending on my reference photo, I may need to paint on the barrel of the wave (with a mostly dry brush). I usually add darker areas in the water in front of the breaking wave.

Distant ocean: If needed – dark and light areas for forming waves, and moving water.

Dark sand at the ocean’s edge: Right next to the edge of the water add a dark line of brown. Then go back with a wet brush and touch the line to “bleed” the brown.
Painting the ocean's edge
Add more paint to the wet area if necessary to create more wet sand.
Painting the ocean's edge

Calling it done! I usually work on a painting on and off for about a week. When I think it is close to being done, I prop it up and look at it from across the room. I may add a few more details. Sometimes it’s better to call it done, because tweaking it, may affect other areas. I’ll remember the “challenges” with a painting and try to overcome them in the next painting. I’d love to see YOUR seascape! Email me at lidesigner@yahoo.com.
How to paint the ocean in watercolor and gouache | painting tips

View my collection of watercolor seascapes here. Prints are available on watercolor paper or canvas, in many sizes.

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Wave print on canvas!

Seascape canvas print of Blue Wave #11 by Eileen McKenna | #coastalart
I paint in watercolor and have only dabbled with acrylics on canvas. Seeing one of my watercolors blown up and printed on canvas is really exciting. It adds another layer of interest to the painting. A few steps away you see the ocean and the waves. When you step closer you see the brushstrokes.

The design of my home is, not surprisingly, very beachy. So this canvas, Blue Wave #11, fits right in. Next up to select a few of my square ocean paintings, have them printed on canvas, and hang them side by side.

All the paintings in my shop are available as Giclee art prints on gallery wrapped canvas. Take a look at shop.eileenmckenna.com.


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It starts with mixing colors

It starts with mixing colors | Painting the ocean
After I use painter’s tape to mark the horizon, I mix the colors. I use a blue, this time Prussian Blue, and Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow. The color of the ocean, even in the same place, changes. So many things cause this including the weather, the light. It’s blue, it’s green, it’s brown, it’s grey.
Mixing watercolor paint to paint the ocean
I start painting the ocean at the horizon line and move towards the shore. The water is browner closer to the beach. I add a layer of the brown before I use white gouache to create the foam.
Mixing watercolor paint to paint the ocean
The color of the sand is another challenge – one I’ve been contemplating on and off for 3 1/2 years. For this painting I tried something new and added Burnt Sienna to my mix of blue, red, yellow.

Want a dose of creative inspiration? Sign up for my newsletter “My Creative Collection” by clicking here. Learn more about the newsletter here.

Prints of my watercolor beach paintings are now for sale at shop.eileenmckenna.com. Take a peek!
The Blue Collection by Eileen McKenna | watercolor beach ocean landscapes available as limited edition giclee art prints


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A Cloudy Day at Surf Camp

The second day my son participated in surf camp was a cloudy day. When I saw my pictures I decided to try to paint the clouds, as many of my ocean paintings have clear blue skies.

"A Cloudy Day at Surf Camp"

Close up of the sky:
Painting a cloudy sky in watercolor

The start:
Painting the ocean in watercolor

Progress on the water:
Painting the ocean in watercolor

As much as I have developed a process for painting the ocean, with each painting I still have to figure things out – mixing the right colors and shades, capturing the details of the waves. It’s still a challenge, but a rewarding one!

Prints of my watercolor beach paintings are now for sale at shop.eileenmckenna.com. Take a peek!
The Blue Collection by Eileen McKenna | watercolor beach ocean landscapes available as limited edition giclee art prints


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Jetty

Jetty by Eileen McKenna, beach watercolor painting available as giclee art prints.
The focus of this painting is the rocks – the jetty. I had fun creating the different shapes and shadows of the rocks. I’m especially proud of the wet look of the sand where the water has just receded. And of course this painting needed a seagull.

The beaches in my hometown are delineated by the jetties. They are an unmistakable characteristic of our beaches. So it seemed appropriate to have them be the star of a painting.

“Jetty” is part of “the Blue Collection” and is available as a Limited Edition Giclee Art Print in my online shop!


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Side Surfer

Side Surfer by Eileen McKenna. Watercolor painting available as limited edition giclee art prints | beach | surfing | surfer | waves
I primarily paint from my own photos. It’s nice to incorporate that into the process of a painting – capturing a moment that strikes me and later painting it. This painting is from a photo I took at my hometown beach of Long Beach, NY.

It’s taken from the angle of one set of jetties, looking towards the next set – the “side.” What I love about this painting is how much it reminds me of Long Beach – the jetty, the color of the water, the surfer, the waves, even the familiar angle – as you cross over the rocks and step onto the next beach.

“Side Surfer” is part of “the Blue Collection” and is available as a Limited Edition Giclee Art Print in my online shop!


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Blue Wave #11

"Blue Wave #11" by Eileen McKenna. Watercolor ocean paintings available as art giclee prints. Beach | ocean | art | surf | waves
This painting was a break through for me. It was the first painting where I used white gouache – more opaque than watercolor paint – to paint the foam and spray. Before this I relied on the white of the paper for those areas. Using gouache allowed me to create more depth in the foam and waves.

When I polled family and friends on which of my paintings I should make available as prints, everyone had #11 on their list. (#11 was the number I’d assigned to it.) It was written so often, it became #11 in my mind, so it seemed fitting to call it Blue Wave #11.

When I posted Blue Wave #11, I got such a great response! Comments included, “I can smell the salty air of the ocean” and “Soothing, as if I can almost hear the wave breaking.” It’s gratifying to feel you’ve made a breakthrough and then also have people respond to positively.

“Blue Wave #11” is part of “the Blue Collection” and is available as a Limited Edition Giclee Art Print in my online shop!


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Capturing the Ocean in Watercolor

Painting the beach nd ocean in watercolor

I’ve aspired to capture the ocean in watercolor for years. In December I made “painting the beach” my New Year’s project. The snow was falling outside, but I was inside painting waves. With each painting I learned and improved.

Some of my firsts in early January.
Painting waves in watercolor

I watched a few YouTube videos and learned from others (and wrote about it here.)
14 tips on painting waves in watercolor

I tried new tools and supplies and incorporated them into my process.
Process for Painting the Beach in Watercolor

I’ve kept with it and over six months later I still often paint the ocean. In some ways I feel like I’ve found my thing.

Yesterday I was standing in the ocean, watching the waves break, watching the foam churned up by the waves wash in and out. It was surreal, like standing in a painting and all I could think about was white gouache.

Original beach watercolor landscape by Eileen McKenna

Have you read:
Six Ways to bring the Beach into your Home https://mycreativeresolution.com/2017/05/19/six-ways-to-brin…h-into-your-home/


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Parting with originals

Original beach watercolor landscape by Eileen McKenna
Yesterday I finished this painting. It went through an ugly stage and was at risk of being abandoned, but I recently picked it up again and continued to work at it. I really like the big border I left – made easy by using thick tape on the edges. As I was finishing it, I was thinking that I liked how it came out, but I wasn’t emotionally tied to it and would be able to part with the original.

Then I looked at it again and thought, nope I don’t want to part with this one! This seems to be a common occurance for me. I want to sell but don’t want to part with the originals. Recently I met with an art print company. They make giclee prints. These high quality prints seem to be the perfect compromise. I can sell but keep the originals.

I’ve been looking through my paintings to find a few favorites to start with. I’ll keep you posted. 😀

Have you seen the beach pin I had made from an illustration of mine? Perfect for your beach hat or bag! Click below to order one.
Beach Pin - 1" soft enamel pin with rubber clutch
Beach Pin – 1″ soft enamel pin with rubber clutch
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