Before beginning to work in acrylics, I practiced painting seascapes in watercolor. Although acrylics are different, I found practicing in watercolor to be very useful. I developed a process that, when I switched to acrylics, I could follow. And painting with watercolor on paper is less expensive than using up canvases.
Process for Painting Seascapes
Here is a summary of my painting process. Keep reading for links to more in depth resources.
Mix seascape colors – I mix blues, greens, and browns from ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, and cadmium red.
Mark the horizon line. I use painter’s tape to achieve a straight horizon line.
Paint the ocean water closest to the horizon darker and bluer.
Paint the water in the cresting wave lighter and greener.
Paint the shallow water near shore brown.
Paint the sand. The sand is darkest closer to the ocean where it is wetter.
Paint the crashing waves with white.
Paint the foam with white and a flat brush. Horizontal lines help this area appear flat.
Add shadows to the breaking wave.
Paint the sky as a blue fade that is lighter closest to horizon.
Tips for Painting Acrylic Seascapes
Study a reference photo to identify the details that will make your seascape more realistic looking.
Clouds in the sky – I used an acrylic gel medium to thin out the paint and overlay colors for a more transparent look.
Paint lighter areas on the ocean for the sunlight
A dry brush can help create the spray off a crashing wave
Use an art sponge to make the shadows in the crashing wave look more natural.
Add a dark line beneath the edge of the foam to make the foam appear thicker.
Practice painting seascapes in watercolor with these tutorials:
I share my step by step process for painting watercolor seascapes in the following tutorials. Choose the format that works best for you:
I often start and work on more than one painting at a time. It’s nice to have another painting to grab when you’ve reached the point with a painting where the newest layer needs to dry. Sometimes I work on more than one painting from the same reference photo. I’m not trying to create duplicate paintings. I’m giving myself the opportunity to try different things, to learn, to explore.
The paintings above are from the same photo. In one there is a seagull. The crashing part of the wave is slightly different. Even the color of the sky, the detail of the sand. For me it’s not about which one is better. It’s more about what I learned during the painting process.
See my collection of seascape paintings at shop.eileenmckenna.com. Prints are available on watercolor paper or canvas, in many sizes.
It felt good the other morning to sit and paint. I didn’t have any ongoing paintings, so first I set up several boards – taping the watercolor paper down. For this painting I worked with the paper still stuck to the pad – not as effective as taping it down, but I ran out of boards.
I started 4 paintings in one sitting, using two reference photos. The goal of painting two from the same photo was to do one version that was a quicker less detailed version. Although I can’t say this will actually happen this time around.
It’s always easier for me to sit and paint when I have a painting in progress, especially if I don’t let too much time pass between working on it. And since you need to allow time for the layers to dry, I like having at least two paintings to work on at once.
When I came home later in the day, the paintings were on my mind, so I picked one to work on some more. I ended up focusing solely on this one and finished it by the end of the day.
Here are the stages:
Second layer. I needed to darken things up a bit.
Third layer. Still tweaking the color of the ocean. Started added the foam.
Fourth layer – more foam. After this I added more color to the sky.
Last week I was finishing up a painting and kept noticing what I’ll call weaknesses – areas I wanted to better capture. In an effort to improve the painting I kept tweaking it. In the end I overworked it and should have left it the way it was.
I’m learning that as you paint, especially the same subject, you find new areas that you want to improve on. At first, when I started focusing on painting the ocean, my goal was to capture the water – the waves, the shadows, the movement. As I got better at that, I focused on making the foam look more realistic. Then it was adding more interest to the sky. Not just painting a blue sky, but clouds, and light from one direction. I even did two paintings that the clouds are almost the focal point. Now my goal is to capture the way the light hits the water.
This sliding scale means that with each painting I may achieve a previous goal, but a new one is likely to reveal itself. With the last painting I should have quit while I was ahead. With this painting, I stopped myself. I did accomplish more than the last, and there is always the next painting.
Want a dose of creative inspiration? Sign up for my newsletter “My Creative Collection” by clicking here. Learn more here.
I’ve added three new watercolor ocean paintings to my shop! Prints are available at shop.eileenmckenna.com. Take a look!
Surf Camp is the third collection of watercolor paintings I’ve released as Limited Edition Giclee Art Prints in my online shop. While my previous paintings featured bright blue skies, for these two paintings I had the pleasure of painting dark cloudy skies.
Painting for an entire hour proved impossible this morning, as I had things to do. But a half hour is better than nothing. As I worked, I thought about how daily work keeps you “in” a painting. You’re engaged in the project, even thinking about it when you are away from it. Being “in” a painting helps bring you back to your creativity. It’s easier to get to work – you know what to work on, perhaps you’ve even thought out how to tackle an area of the painting. But when a few days pass without revisiting your painting or project, that thread is broken. It’s harder to motivate to sit down and create, because you might not remember where you left off or possibly even what you were working on.
Want a dose of creative inspiration? Sign up for my newsletter “My Creative Collection” by clicking here. Learn more about the newsletter here.
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.
Close up of the sky:
Progress on the water:
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!
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.
I watched a few YouTube videos and learned from others (and wrote about it here.)
I tried new tools and supplies and incorporated them into my process.
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.