How To Create Sensational Seascapes

What makes good seascapes so sensational?

The thing that seems to attract people the most, is the beauty of a translucent clear wave and the dramatic violence of the wave hitting a rock or cliff face and the spray flung high in the air.

How to paint spray.

A5 Watercolour: Clear translucent wave with force of seawater hitting rocks.

What is it that really appeals to people?

People buy according to their senses and emotions. So as an artist you play upon these facts:

  • The play of warm colours against cool colours
  • The contrast of tone levels and complementary colours
  • The dominance of size and shape.
  • Power seen in action, oblique and undulating lines.
  • Contrast of sharp definition to that of blurred action.

Sensational weather conditions:

Naturally the burst of spray creates a fine mist, especially on windy or bad weather days. The contradiction between the blurring of the fine spray and the clearness of the wave’s profile, in relation to the rest of the stormy weather generates a seductive mood.

Also the opposition between warm and cool colours that you get in warm sunsets or warm brown rocks, compared with the cool colours of the seawater.

To get these dramatic sensational effects, you must know how to control edges.

Creating nebulous variegated edges:

Because the surface of rocks is uneven, the force of water hitting a rock creates an uneven and varied perimeter edge to the spray.

Some spray looks solidly suspended for a second and the finer spray somewhat blurred, thus creating a variation the edges. So when painting the pray be conscious of how you are painting the outer contour edges of the spray.

Different ways how to paint spray:

  • To get the momentary solid suspended drops of water in spray, I sometimes revert to using liquid masking in my watercolour seascapes.
  • Other times I paint directly over dry paper, purposely leaving sharp-edges. And later wetting and blurring edges and spots to create action and variation.
  • Under misty weather conditions you can blur spray with a sponge. Even here make sure you get an uneven contour edge of your spray. Swipe the sponge in different directions, depending of cause on the impact of the wave and which way the wind is blowing. The technique depends on the size and type of sponge you are using.
  • Loose perimeter borders: Adding bits of spray beyond the perimeter borders of the spray’s contour edge in darker areas makes them more noticeable, example against the sky or dark ominous cliff. Keep in mind though that the sky tone is generally lighter than the sea colour. When the cliff area’s paint is still semi-damp, that is nearly dry, spray it with water and then blot the wet droplets. Timing is important.
  • Another way to paint spray: First wet the area where the spray is going to be and then paint the background nearest the spray. Tilt the paper so the background colour runs a little into the spray area. You can also tilt the paper in the direction you want the thrust of the spray to run into the dark immediate background area.
  • Always remember that white spray and foam isn’t really pure white, unless you are emphasizing highlights and sparkles. Surrounding colours are reflected into white areas making colourful shadows, thus helping to variegate the edges and formation of the spray.
  • As a last resort, some artists use sandpaper paper to create fine droplets in their spray. How they create this effect? The sandpaper only catches the peaks or tips of the paper tooth, thus leaving little white spots (if the paper is white of cause). You can only do this if you have thick strong watercolour paper that can withstand rough handling. Even so be careful and use it sparingly. Where paper is roughened, subsequentt washes of paint will seep into the paper and leave dark marks. So only use this technique when the painting is completed. Also the effect is more effective where previous washes were dark.

Rock and the seawater meniscus:

Where the colour of the seawater meets the colour of the rock or cliff face is important. It must look natural, yet dramatic in its own right.

To make it look natural it must also have variation, sometimes blurred with graduated colour and sometimes with sharp-edges and contrast of colour.

How to paint meniscus transitions:

  • One way is to keep the paint of the rock wet so you can merge and blur the colours of the seawater with the rock colour.
  • Soften the tone of the colours of the rock nearest the water to make the merge easier. This creates a misty transition.
  • Rock looks darker when wet and this complements the `white’ of any surrounding foam.
  • The jagged definition of the top of the rock complements the blurring and gradation of the meniscus below, thus dramatizing the scene.
  • Rivulets of `white’ water running down over rocks can be in contrast (in tone and sharp-edged) or blurred edged and graduated in colour, depending on the effect you are trying to create and the speed on which it is draining off the rock.

How to paint the power behind blurred action:

We talked about the spray and meniscus conditions, but we also have to consider the surrounding scene.

You don’t just show the burst of water and spray, but also the force of the water preceding it, what caused it, behind it. Otherwise it will give the impression of a whale-blow.

  • Show the rest of the wave, on both sides where possible.
  • Use undulating contour lines in your seascapes, to imply the powerful motion behind the impact of the wave as it hits a rock, cliff, etc.
How to paint a surfer riding a huge wave

A5 Watercolour: Surfer crouching while riding the curl of a huge wave.

Sensational dominance:

And of cause the dramatic dominance in relation to smaller weaker things, we consider the difference of blurred action of foam to that of the solid definition of cliffs, lighthouses, etc.

  • Towering cliffs compared to the waves seen far below.
  • A big wave with its far-flung spray compared to a submerged rock, only partly visible above sea level.
  • Lighthouse paintings where the force of an enormous overpowering wave breaks against a lighthouse and there is a small man standing in the lighthouse doorway unaware of the oncoming huge over-whelming wave!
  • A small figure of surfer compared to the mammoth wave he is riding in its clear curl and the pounding foam and spray on its opposing side.


For more tips on how to paint beautiful seascapes check out page and the category “Watercolour Seascapes Secrets”.

Seascape Contrary Facts

Facts verses emotional content:

Okay, up till now in my previous seascape blogs, we have talked about the blurring of action and movement in seascapes, and how blurring creates emotional impact in your paintings. But now, we are going to discuss contrary facts, differences between blurring and detail. Not only where to put detail contrast but why it forms in those places.

Contrast facts

A5 watercolour: Contrast of edges, tone and colours makes a dramatic effect.

Blurring of action and motion:

  • Naturally foam and spray is blurred, especially in the shadows.
  • And of cause where water is forcibly hitting rocks and rushing over the rocks.
  • Also where the water of the wave is cascading forward and turning over the inner tapped foam.
  • Plus, mist and fog softens the scene and creates emotional appeal.

We need distinguishing facts to bring things into focus:

There can’t be only be blurring in your seascape paintings. We need for sharp edges and a certain amount of detail. But why contradictory?!

  • Well, if there is too much blurring, your painting won’t have recognizable details that states what’s actually happening in your painting.
  • So we need a certain amount of contrast, sharp-edged brushstrokes, neat contour edges and fine detail to bring things into focus.
  • And tonal contrast puts oomph into your otherwise blurry wishy-washy scene. If you don’t mind my watery pun!

Here are a few places you’ll likely to find those sharp-edged facts in seascapes:

  • The top-edge contour-ridge of a peaked wave just before it breaks and turns over. The reason it’s darker just at that point is that the water is starting to triple over and is slightly thicker (gathered and condensed) there and its weight drops forward.
  • A certain amount of value-definition is added just at the turning-curve of the wave. This little bit of darker definition contrasts with the clear sheer transparency of the water of the wave close by. You may not see this situation. It all depends on how the peak is formed in the moment of turnover action or if there is a returning tidal wave or undercurrent influencing the situation.
  • The undulating-contour or ridge-edge of incoming swelling waves, need inconsistency of blurred edges and sharp edges. Why? Because the sharp edges pronounce the power of the wave. And the blurring stops it from looking static. The variation in undulating lines and differences in edges is more comfortable than stiff neatness. Why? The variation creates breaks the neatness of the contour lines. And this is strangely bridged and subconsciously acceptable as people `read’ (peruse) your painting. Whereas on the other hand, neat contour edges cut up the painting into separate collage-like dimensions.
  • Even though turnover wave-foam is fragmented, there is a certain call here and there for a few sharp-dry-edged brushstrokes, to give the foam distinguishable form, especially as it falls within a darker area.
  • In the case of white’ water running off dark wet rocks in rivulets, the contrast gives your painting a dramatic touch.
Even though you may not be an artist reading this blog, its fun to make it a game looking for blurred and sharp edges when you visit the beach.

There are also other ways of softening and contour edge:

Blurring isn’t just having soft-edged brushstrokes (ie painting wet-in-wet method) but also using gradation of colour and tone. I can hear you thinking, “What is that, for what reason, how and where?”

  • What is it? Gradating colours and tones to create smooth visual transitions over potential problematic contours that could possibly restrict visual advancement.
  • Purpose: Thus assisting the eye to flow easier from one area or plane to another, thus preventing jerky visionary exploration of the painting.
  • How: Using similar colours and tones to that of the object or its contour.
  • Where in relation to the wave: Long-side the object, ie to the contour curve edge of pecked and turning waves.
Contrary facts

Variation and differences in tones illustration.


Aaah! Now the big deal:

Because rocks and cliffs are usually dark they stand out against `white’ foam, thus making a dramatic structural element in your painting. With all the blurring and blending of colours and tone, this solid structure gives strength and weight to your composition.

And the other factor, there must be some symbolic structure in your seascape to give it reason. People recognize rocks, cliffs, boats and birds. Adding up all these factors, they immediately recognize the scene as a seascapes and what is happening in your painting.

Stabilizing latitude and longitude `grid’:

  1. Latitude: Even though we spoke about making long wave contour-ridges inconsistent, their undulating linear formation does form a stabilizing factor that gives the impression that it `grips’ the sides of your composition (watercolour paper).
  2. Longitude: And anything that drops down from the top of your paper or protrudes upward from the base of your paper, forms a ‘gripping’ latitude stabilizing factor.

Note:  Even though these two `linear’ formations should form an in-consistent broken ‘grid’, and may not actually touch the sides of your paper, they are none the less subconsciously accepted as stabilizing composition factors.

  • Latitude examples: Horizon line, undulating horizontal waves, floating foam and scud rushing up the beach.
  • Longitude examples: clouds, rocks, birds, river outlets, wooden anchor poles, sun or moon reflections. Things don’t have to be perfectly perpendicular. Any oblique contour or action line will do, eg: cliff-faces.

Looking forward to hearing from you:

Please tell me your experiences in painting watercolour seascapes.  I’m sure others would like to know too. We learn a lot from each other. `Sharing watercolour secrets is caring’!

For more on painting watercolour seascape, start again on the introductory page.

Art: Dramatizing Flow Within Your Seascapes

The art of painting seascapes:

Remember the sea isn’t ever still. The waves are always rolling in and backwashes and undercurrents, even on the calmest of days. In art it’s our prerogative as artists to take advantage of this, to accentuate and dramatize the flow and action, in order to give our paintings more sensational appeal.

A5 watercolour: Foam patterns in the sea water.

A5 watercolour: Foam patterns in sea water.

Brushstrokes and foam pattern texture:

I advise you to avoid using small thin brushes. Small brushes force you to make tiny fussy brushstrokes. The resulting mess makes your seascapes look spotty and confusing.

Because the sea is always in motion, it calls for free flowing brushstrokes. So it’s only natural we make our brushstrokes appear spontaneous, loose and free. And to support this; where possible, use big brushes and broad strokes, especially at the beginning.

Even foam should have a free flowing appearance. Up to now I used a pointed round brushes -in all the previous seascape blogs. Now I’m going to introduce flat filbert brushes. Why?

  • The holes in the foam are usually rounded, because bubbles pop in the foam as the blanket of the foam spreads and floats. The round tipped filbert brushes make beautiful lacy holes in the `white’ foam.
  • Secondly the rounded tip creates lovely subtle edges.
  • And thirdly, you can make beautiful thick and thin wiggly brushstrokes. Zigzag lines in your painting also emphasize action in your painting.
Art of painting foam.

Using different brushes to create lacy patterns in foam.

Layers or washes of paint:

  • Have an action plan. What you will do to start with, what is the most important feature of your painting and where you are going to place it.
  • If you want your `white’ foam and spray to look dramatic and show up clearly, plan to place it against a darker background.
  • Remember with watercolours you work from `light to dark’. Starting with the lightest colours, and adding darker colours where necessary as the painting proceeds.
  • Exceptions: Dark passages (like rocks and deep sea) look uneven and messy if reiterated and overworked. So if you know where you need a really dark passage, paint that area with a very dark wash directly as one wash of colour. And if you are doing a really large dark area, add a tiny bit of Gum Arabic to your paint mixture, to stabilize the dark wash.

 The need for blending colours:

Seawater looks wet and translucent when you drop-in and gradate colours, especially analogous colours. For example: grouping warm and cool blues together, or merging warm or cool greens in sequence.

The state of your paper:

It’s easier to blend colours if your paper is wet. In the beginning stages anyway! Blurring gives your seascapes a moody atmospheric appearance, and of cause action is blurred.

  • Dry paper and Semi-dry paper creates detail and sharp-edged contours. This gives your seascape a stiff stilted static appearance.
  • So it’s advisable not to start out with dry paper. Dry paper restricts your creativity and easy flow of colour and brush. Seawater should look like its flowing smoothly.
  • Keeping your paper wet, helps you keep your painting pliable as you work.
  • If you want smooth blended, gradated transitions of colour in particular areas, it’s another reason to keep the paper and paint wet in those areas as you work.

Detail and contrast:

Be selective of how much and where you’ll put your detail. Less says more.

  • Rocks are static, so their contour edges are sharp-edged. And foam rushing passed dark rocks will have sharp-edges.
  • But where there is action, spray mist, draining or lapping water, its will be blurred.
  • And of cause there should be contrast of tone, at main point of interest, in some way or other.
  • You don’t want to take peoples’ attention away the main point of interest! So reduce detail and contrast of tone, where possible, around the outer edges of your picture (composition).

 Get to know what your brush can do:

In art, no one learns to paint overnight. Any learning curve is a process. “Little steps get you moving, and before you know it you are fit enough to start running.” Keep in mind: all famous artists were babes to begin with!

  • Don’t try full complete compositions at the beginning. If you expect too much of yourself and anything goes wrong, naturally you will become disheartened and disappointed in yourself.
  • Gain confidence by practicing with small vignette studies. That is, painting only parts or sections of waves on small A5-A4 paper. You can bluff you are doing fieldwork research.
  • Check the difference types of sea formations, how the waves form and how the seawater drains down from rocks, etc.

 Stages of progress:

Continue practicing these exercises. You will see with each exercise your confidence grows from strength to strength.

Later you can put all these `field-exercises’ together to make slightly bigger compositions. But always keep your renditions simple and uncomplicated. It gives your paintings more impact. And as time goes on, with practice your seascapes will start to look more and more realistic.

The art of putting action into your seascapes.

A5 watercolour: Notice how the straight horizon was subtly broken by the undulating action and curves of the wave.

 Perfection can be a hindrance factor if you let it:

If you are worried about perfection and getting everything just right, remember art is a rendition of reality. No matter how good an artist you are, you’ll never re-produce things exactly as God created it. You’ll only get frustrated trying.

Rather go with the mood, the flow of what you are doing and what’s happening. The aim is to enjoy creating `your own thing’, your own really, an impression of what you see. After that people who view your work, will see another dimension of reality!

If you want to learn more about painting watercolour seascapes:

First go to Watercolour Seascapes page and also follow the category ‘Watercolour Seascape Secrets‘ blogs.

Watercolours to Suit Your Mood

Quality of your watercolours:

How your seascapes look also depends on the quality of the pigments used and how translucent the colours are.

Why, because people expect seawater to look wet, clear and translucently deep. Give them the feeling that they want to jump in and do some swimming or go sailing.

I’m quite sure no one wants their seascape paintings to look dense, heavy and lifeless. Anyway, opaque pigments don’t flow easily.

You want your paints to `flow easily with the tide’. The sea is moody and full of action. So you must feel the mood of the sea, the pull, flow and ebb of the tide, the pounding of the waves, etc as you paint, if you want your painting to look authentic.

What's your impression?

A5 watercolour: Sunrise on a beautiful morning.

First we’ll look at what other traditional artists used:

(And lastly you can see what I use)

E John Robinson’s palette:

Your palette

E John Robinson’s palette

* This is his basic palette.

Opera is somewhat like Rembrandt’s Quinacridone Rose (shocking pink hue).

Mauve is a warm violet.

  • His dominant colour in his compositions is blue.
  • His sub-dominant colour is green.
  • His complementary or accent (minor) colour is orange (burnt sienna for rocks and sand).

  • ·         Thalo and phthalo words are derived from the word: phthalocynaine.
  • ·         Winsor Newton makes thalo pigments, eg: Winsor blue & Winsor green.
  • ·         Cotman’s call it intense `Phthalo’ blue or green.
  • ·         Thalo pigments are intense strong stainers and should be used with care.
  • ·         Because thalo green is such a strong intense colour: mix raw sienna, burnt sienna, Burnt umber or violet with it, to give it a more natural appearance.

Leslie Worth’s palette:

Your palette

Leslie Worth’s palette

  • The paper Leslie uses: Arches NOT 180gsm/90 LB
  • He wets the paper before applying washes
  • Lays in a soft blurred sky, ocean and beach as one stage (first wash) to mirror colours.
  • He strengthened the values of land (cliffs), horizon and waves. He never over did it or over fussed, his washes were simple.
  • His compositions were generally uncluttered horizontal planes, without huge pounding dramatic waves
  • He made sparkle effects by carefully scraping the paper when the painting was complete and very dry.

 Leslie Worth’s seascape skies:

Yellow pigments were generally included with the first wash, to create a sunny radiance:

  • Raw sienna, indigo, Prussian blue and sepia
  • Replaced raw sienna with orange for warmer beach scenes
  • Raw sienna, Light red, brown madder, sepia, Prussian blue, indigo and violet
  • Yellow ochre, sepia, Monestial blue.

General palette traditional taught in art collages:

Your palette

General palette traditional taught in art collages


  • Rocks: Indian red, cerulean blue, yellow ochre, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, French ultramarine.
  • Rock crevices: Thalo blue, red, green and yellow, Alizarin Crimson.
  • Water: Rose madder, Aureolin yellow, cobalt blue, viridian, and burnt sienna.
  • Reflections: Thalo blue and green, alizarin crimson.

Note: All three of these traditional palettes contained opaque cadmium pigments! Very interesting.

But it’s up to you to experimenting for yourself:

After painting a few seascapes, you’ll soon begin to know which pigments you can handle easily and which you prefer. When working on location doing fieldwork, don’t use a big clumsy paint box. Reduce the amount of pigments and put them in a small tin with a lid.

Now let’s see what my own palette consists of:

Your choiise of pigmets

My basic watercolour palette for seascapes.

® Means manufactured by Rembrandt.

  • I use Rembrandt gamboge yellow and Perm madder lake to make a fresh clean orange. But where the yellow of the sunset meets the blue of the sky, I use raw sienna, to prevent unwanted green tinges.
  • The hue of Gamboge yellows differs with each manufacturer. Rembrandt gamboge is more translucent than the other manufacturers’ gamboge yellows.
  • Raw sienna is great for sky undercoats, sunlight on rocks, and sea sand.
  • I use Indigo as a blue-grey. I mix sap green with a little indigo and Payne’s grey. It makes a lovely translucent green in thin waves and shallow water.
  • I sometimes dropped-in Light Red or Indian Red into French ultramarine, to make beautiful atmospheric sky effects.


  • Personally I don’t use cadmium pigments (eg: red, yellow or orange) because they create `dusty’ opaque washes of colour. Why, because I want to give the impression seawater translucent. So I use more transparent pigments.
  • Also gouache and cheap kiddies paint are too opaque. They give your seascapes a dense chalky appearance.
  • The type of watercolour paper you buy is also important. It makes all the difference in the texture of your washes and the general appearance of your seascapes. If you are not happy with the results you are getting, experiment with different types of paper until you get what you want. Sometimes it takes time to get used to a type of paper and how to handle its quirks.

Your preference:

  • Would like to know what pigment colours you use in your watercolour seascapes?
  • If your don’t paint yourself,which colours do you think made the best seascapes?

Seascape Location Equipment

Gaining experience on location:

One can learn a lot about how to paint seascapes from art books and the internet, but to become a truly good seascape artist you need to do location fieldwork. That is, go down to the sea and learn directly from Nature and all its idiosyncrasies.

  • How the waves and foam form.
  • How the waves ride and break.
  • What happens when a wave hits rocks or clashes with another wave in under-current conditions?
  • What are the true colours of the sea in all-weather conditions?
  • What colours of the sand, wet and dry, etc?
Location observation

A5 watercolour: Close up of dashing waves.

When doing location fieldwork:

Don’t take expensive equipment with you and limit your paraphernalia. You don’t want to carry heavy stuff around while looking for a good scene to paint. It also reduces any ‘toing and froing’ of equipment from the car to the spot you have chosen.

You don’t need the fuss of where you are going to arrange and balance all the stuff around you on rocks or rutted sand.

Because each situation is different, only take out those things you will need from your (light-weight) haversack when you set yourself up at the chosen spot. So that you have less to gather up, should an unexpected wave threaten!

 Suggested equipment:

  • An A4 board to clip your paper to: Panelite or fiberglass boards are very light in weight.
  • A plastic water-bottle with fitting cup lid, so you have fresh rinse water and a water-jar all in one.
  • Also a small handy fine-spray bottle to wet your paper. You don’t want too much water, water can be very heavy!
  • A wet dish-clothe (they manufacture thin light-weight ones these days). Keep it in a small plastic bag to keep it damp and clean when not in use. This clothe is for wiping your hands on or flushing sand out of your paint box if necessary. But its main use is to keep your paper damp (placed under your paper) while you are painting. The reason is that paper dries quickly outdoors, especially in this case it’s generally breezy down by the seashore.
  • I keep a small stock of watercolour paper in an A4 plastic sleeve-pocket, like the ones you put in folder-files. The plastic protects the paper from getting wet.
  • Half toilet roll or paper towel, for blotting excess paint, etc.
  • For technique purposes, a small facial cosmetic sponge to create fine spray that the wind blows off the tops of waves.
  • A fold-out hold-all `pencil box’: I made mine from clothe, with a long zip. It has inner pockets to put stuff in. Some artists include elastic bands to hold their brushes firmly in.
  • A small old towel, (across your lap) to swipe your brush across when your brush is too wet. You can also arrange your paint box and brushes on it if you have to set up yourself on loose sand, to prevent sand getting into your paints. In that case, you’ll resort to flicking your brush to eradicate excess liquid.

Other considerations:

Always have the right clothing to protect yourself against all weathers, so you can work in comfort. Things like:

  • Lip-ice, scarf and a wind-breaker jacket.
  • If you take a hat, sew in an elastic band to make sure it doesn’t blow away in the wind.
  • Brown sunglasses protect your eyes from the glare and flying sand. The white of the watercolour paper creates a glare that distorts the true hue of the colours in your paint box, and after a while you find yourself selecting just any blue or green, until your painting has an unrealistic appearance.
  • I take a camera with me so as to catch special effects. If you take a camera, conceal it in your clothing. This reduces theft and also prevents the lenses getting wet and misting up with the salty atmosphere. I also carry a small plastic bottle of liquid lens cleaner and soft lens clothe in my camera sling bag.
  • Where possible wear flexible rubber shoes to balance on shape rocks, as you seek a place to paint.
  • If you are female, wear shorts or a swimsuit. You don’t want your dress flying up with a sudden gust of wind! Nor do you want an unexpected wave to make your slacks wet.
  • A plastic bag to put your litter in. Fold it up into a compact size when not in use.

What to keep in your car:

  • Also, you may want higher elevation (a better perspective angle) of the scene. Keep a fold-up camping chair in the car. Get one with a place to hold (a glass) for your water-jar and if possible a side flap that’ll hold your paint box, etc for easy access. Its irritating bending down from you chair to get at your water and paints, etc.
  • Keep a wind-breaker shield in your car in case your need it. This type of wind-breaker is those that you peg in the sand, placed on the windward side of where you are sitting.
  • Keep a file of your paintings in your car. You never know when someone seeing you working on location will want to buy one or two of your paintings.
  • Keep a sketch pad and note-book in the car. Some days you may not be able to paint, but would like to sketch the sea and make research notes instead.
  • It’s not fun painting on an empty tummy. Take food that doesn’t litter and is handy to grab and eat while painting, example apples or plain biscuits.
Location observation

A5 watercolour: Clashing undercurrents.

Passing shot:

It sounds exciting doesn’t it?! Yep, painting on location is like going on an adventure, exploring, researching and doing your thing.

What makes great seascape paintings?


Have you ever wondered what makes a great seascape painting? Here are seven basic composition tips:

What happens to pounding surf.

A5 watercolour: Pounding surf.

1: Reduce subject matter:

Always consider the elements seascape before beginning to paint. The suggestions I give here can be varied according to the type of scene.

  • A small painting about 2-3 basic things, eg: wave, foam and rocks.
  • Big paintings about 3-4 elements or objects, eg: Cliff, clear wave, stormy sky, boat or birds.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • What is most impressive to you in the scene?
  • What should you leave out?

2: Dominating factors:

Don’t use similar shapes. Something must dominate the scene to give it impact and purpose.

  • One dominant shape, examples: A big wave, a huge cliff, or rock.
  • One open space, eg: sky area or less-descriptive area.

3: Differential tone values:

  • Where possible have three basic tonal areas, one light, one dark and one medium toned. Subtly interlace their format to give them natural occurrence.
  • Alternate chiaroscuro, that is, contrast and change of tone levels from one plane to another, so that form is distinguished perspectively.

4: Variation of balance and weight:

  • If there is a cliff on one side of the painting and you want some rocks on the other side of the composition, the rocks on the other side should be smaller than the cliff, so that the cliff-face dominates the scene.
  • Two big clear waves with a diminishing contour in the middle split one’s attention. One dominant wave gives the painting impact.

5: Action and motion:

  • Action: Oblique angles, contours and lines, eg: // ZZ SS.
  • Motion: Irregular arabesque lines and curves.
  • Rhythm: Big and small undulation contours.

6: Variation of detail and texture:

  • Lacy foam verses clear translucent water.
  • Soft blurred edges verses sharp hard edges, eg: sharp rocks verses blurred spray.
  • Big verses small brushstrokes: Where possible the ration of big brushstrokes (washes) should outweigh smaller strokes.

7: Variation of colours:

  • Water looks translucent when there is a combination of analogous colours, example: Blue seawater: warm and cool blues. Greenish seawater: Warm and cool greens.
  • Rocks: variation of brown tones, earth yellows and blue shadows.
  • Warm and cool colours in the sky give it atmospheric depth.
What a simple concept.

A5 watercolour: Even serene seascapes can look exciting.

Passing shot:

`All said and done’, what do you think makes a great seascape painting? Please leave a comment. I would like to hear what your opinion is.

Capturing The Action

Putting action into your brushstrokes:

Like any other landscape painting, the composition of seascapes are first considered and planned beforehand. But once you have started painting you must go with the flow of what’s happening as you slash on paint. Watercolour seascapes aren’t painted with tiny fussy brushstrokes. You must feel the power of the seawater with each brush stroke.

The sea in action.

A5 watercolour: The sea in action.

Simple synopsis?

Some people like to start with a light pencil sketch of the basic elements of the composition.

But I prefer to spray both sides of my paper. Why, because seawater is always in motion, and you need depict the blurring of spray and fine mist it creates.

So I start with a blurred blocking-in of light colour and then build up the painting as the paper dries, adding darker and darker colours (where necessary) until I get the right tone contrasts.

 Basic capturing of the scene:

  • Because watercolour paint is wet, work from the top of your page (paper) downwards.
  • Paint only the coloured areas at first. Leave the paper white, where there is going to be `white’ foam and spray, etc.
  • Keep edges soft and blurry, except where you want crisp white areas or highlighted spots.
  • Tip: Water looks wet and translucent when there is a variation of hues. So drop-in and add other colours wherever needed as you work.

Capturing the action:

Because the sea is always in motion there should be action lines in your painting. So, now look again at the scene before you. Look for possible oblique lines and contours and where you’ll possibly find them:

  • Waves are like mountains with valleys in between.
  • So check out the flowing contour edges of huge waves.
  • Notice how the troughs in between the waves have curved basins.
  • Breaking waves have curved translucent peaks.
  • The lacy froth floating in the troughs and up the water of the breaking wave, emphasizes the curve and motion of the waves.
  • Choppy water has small linked W-Hogarthian lines.
  • The scud rushing up the beach has `S’ action lines along the shore.
  • Towering cliff-faces generally have oblique contoured profiles.
  • Craggy jagged rocks have variable `Z’ action lines.
  • Watering running in rivulets, down the beach and into the surf, have `S and Z’ curves.
  • Sometimes you get sweeping cloud formation that you can use as curved action lines in the sky area as well.

Check out tonal format of your composition:

Like any painting your tonal format is important. If your painting is all on one tone level, no one will be able to distinguish what is happening in your painting. So whatever you do, somewhere in your seascape there must be a dark area that gives strength to your painting.

In fact there should be three basic tone areas to make it easier for people to peruse your painting. For example:

  1. One dark area,
  2. One medium toned area,
  3. And one light toned area.

But don’t make them obvious, there will naturally be an interlacing of the areas, depending on the situation and lighting conditions.

  • Naturally rocks are dark,
  • And `white’ foam is light coloured.
  • Skies are generally light in intensity, but you can have dark stormy skies and dark cliffs in the upper area of your composition.
  • Shadows bring in the medium tones.

But there must be contrast at the main point of interest:

This dramatizes the whole scene.

  • Tonal contrast.
  • Colour contrast.
  • Contrast of soft and hard edges.

Working out on Location:

The wind can be very frustrating:

  • Sometimes there is a sudden gust of wind, so keep your paper clipped to your board.
  • Working out-doors your paper and watercolours dry quickly. Keep a wet cloth under your paper and a fine spray bottle ready and handy for whenever it’s needed.
  • If there is high winds blowing don’t go painting that day. Fine sand can be blown all over your precious painting!
  • Sometimes it isn’t the wind that puts sand on your paper. It’s the people passing by or children playing ball that kick sand on your painting or paint box.

One time, can you believe it?

I clumsily tipped my own paint box into the sand! Ooh, it was so embarrassing. A chap, who had come and sat down next to me to watch me paint, carefully got up and recovered my paint box. I took the bottle of water I had for painting and quickly flushed the sand off my pigments before the sand became in-bedded. Needless to say I lost quite a bit of paint in the process that day.

So my advice to you, is to watch where you put down your art materials, you don’t want a balancing trick and disaster happening right in the middle of a fantastic objet d’art.

 People coming to watch you paint:

If you don’t like people watching you paint, don’t worry, not everyone has artistic talent and maybe this could be `a-quick-sale’ when the painting is finished!

If you are still uncomfortable about people seeing what you are doing, you can sit close-up against a rock, a wind-breaker fence or perhaps there’s a concrete support wall available to shelter from prying eyes.

Putting action in waves.

A5 watercolour: Active wave.


At first the results maybe disappointing, but with much observance and persist experience: action pays dividends. If you love the sea and its entire fascinating idiosyncrasy, you will definitely win in the end.

Remember this is only the beginning of the watercolour seascape blog series. With each new blog you will learn more and more. That’s what’s so wonderful about painting; each painting is an exciting adventure!

Check out the introduction page on this website: Watercolour seascapes