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.

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