How to paint a seascape
Seascape painting is a difficult subject to master. Water is constantly changing and the sea or ocean will never stand perfectly still. However, it is for this very reason that seascapes are an endlessly interesting subject to work from. When working on how to paint a seascape from life while on location, you will get the opportunity to learn to work very quickly. Generally, when plein air painting it is necessary to work fairly quickly as the lighting can change rapidly.
Understand the tonality of painted seascapes
When first starting your seascape painting it is important to observe the tonality of your seascape. All seascapes have their own particular tonality to them. For example, in the above painted seascape by a follower of Corot, you will notice that it has a grey/ muted tonality.
If you haven’t already – Grab my FREE Color Mixing Guide for help with color mixing techniques in your painting!
In the piece below by Corot you will notice an entirely different kind of tonality in the seascape painting. The colors are brighter and more saturated. It depicts a bright sunny day instead of a grey day.
Finding shapes in a seascape painting
It can be a little bit overwhelming when working on seascape paintings as there are constant shifts and changes in the water. However, when you try to pinpoint shapes in the water and waves this will make it easier for you.
Shape examples in painted seascapes
For example, in the seascape painting below by Alex Kanevsky, you will notice the dark shadow shape that is right below the wave – it is the darkest area in the whole painting. It probably just lasted for a moment in that exact spot, but repeated itself in a different manner elsewhere. When you spot shapes like these, remember them and put them down.
Also in the painted seascape above, there is a splash area in the wave that is the lightest and brightest area of the painting. This would also be a larger shape worth noting but then there are all sorts of smaller shapes all over.
Shapes constantly change as you paint a seascape
Seascape painting is very different from painting landscapes. As when you go to paint a seascape, the shapes are constantly shifting.
However, seascape paintings do not need to be exact. No matter how hard you try, they will never be exact! So rather, pick out the most important values and colors you observe. Then work to make your painted seascape, feel like the seascape you are painting from.
Here is another seascape painting by Alex Kanevsky where you can notice many different value shapes.
Gesture & movement in seascape painting
Gesture is an important element to seascape painting. With gesture comes a sense of spontaneity, which goes hand in hand with seascape painting as the sea is ever changing in movement. Find the direction of movement in the water and try to get the sense of spontaneity in the waves.
You can see in the seascape painting below by John Constable (an artist who painted many seascapes) that there is a rich sense of gesture in the water. Even as your eye moves toward the shore you can see an exciting upward movement on the canvas. You want to try to find a single line of gesture happening in your seascape as seen in the bright green line below I added on John Constable’s painting. As you go out and paint a seascape, try to find these single lines of gesture.
How to paint a seascape with Volume
There is always a spatial element to water. When painting waves you want to think of them as having volume and structure. In the painting below by John Constable you will see I illustrated some structural volume shapes on the waves for you to be able to visualize more clearly. There is a sense of volume in the waves as we can feel the space of the ‘wave tunnels’. When you paint a seascape, try to look out for these areas of volume and make them feel like they have a sense of space.
Edges in painting and seascapes
Seascapes are incredibly rich with a great variety of different edges. Edges in painting are what will make certain areas in a painting feel soft and others sharp. High contrast areas will be sharp and low contrast areas soft.
There are generally three different categories of edges
Sharp (hard) edges – Where the contrast is at its highest and you can see a clear transition from one color to another.
Soft edges – The contrast is less and there is not as stark of a transition between one color to another.
Softest edges (or ‘lost’ edges) – The edges in this category are so soft that they feel like they ‘get lost’ when transitioning to the next color. The change is nearly imperceptible
In the painting below by Frederick Judd Waugh, we see the highest contrast area in the painted seascape, occurs where the white of the wave meets the dark cliff rock. This is also of course the hardest/ sharpest edge in the painting. In lesser contrast areas we see softer areas, as shown in the diagram below where I point out the ‘softer edges’.
You can also see softer areas in so many other instances in the seascape painting above. The softest edges can be seen where I pointed them out in the painting – and of course you can spot very soft edges in many other places as well.
Now it’s about time for you to go and paint a seascape of your own. Just remember, you want to capture as much variety as you can when it comes to edges. Edges are what make your paintings endlessly interesting!