Seascape Painting Tips for How to Paint a Seascape

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seascape painting tips for beginners

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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.

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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.

seascape painting tips for beginners
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Naples and the Castel Dell’Ovo

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.

Seascape painting tips for beginners
Alex Kanevsky

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.

Seascape painting tips for beginners
Alex Kanevsky

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.

Seascape painting tips for beginners
John Constable

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.

seascape painting tips for beginners
John Constable

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’.

Seascape painting tips for beginners
Frederick Judd Waugh

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!

Additional Readings

If you are interested in Landscape Painting – Read 5 Landscape Painting Tips for Beginners

Recommended Colors for Seascape Painting – You can get them here from Amazon

Ultramarine blue

Ultramarine Blue

Cadmium Orange

Cadmium Orange

Titanium White

Cadmium Lemon

Cobalt Blue


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    2 thoughts on “Seascape Painting Tips for How to Paint a Seascape”

    1. Lois S. Canaday

      In the seascapes at beginning, are the shadings between water surf and sand seawalls to keep water from eroding the sand? Sort of like the ones that protected the U.S.Naval Shipyard at Long Beach, Calif. on Terminal Island in the 50s…Do not know what is there since closure. An interesting painting could have been done where vehicles could cross over pontoon bridge (driving carefully as pontoons were kinds of like a wasboard, partly covered with water) into area of LB where amusement park was. I have done vertical seawalls on a couple of mine as a beginning acrylic painter ( probably they are not as secure as rocks & boulders piled up between ocean and beach), altho I imagine both East and West owners wish they had them, with their beaches washed away almost up to their bldg foundation. Thank you for your posts. You are valued very much by we seniors who now have time to learn to paint various media, to hang and enjoy our accomplishment….so many have or want only a TV, no books, even.

      1. Hi Lois! Thank you for your comment! I could be wrong but I think the shadings that are seen between the water and the sand might be the wet sand that was left from when the ocean water washed over it.

        I think you are absolutely right in that East and West owners likely wished that they had protective boulders to keep the beach encroaching on their foundation… That can cause quite a lot of issues! I am so glad that the information on this website has been valuable for you. It is important to be able to hang up and enjoy what you have accomplished. There is nothing quite like it.

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