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”.

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