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

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