Three Lessons I Learned About Seascape Painting

I think it has become popular for artists to write about failures and how they overcame them to create better paintings. It resonates with our audience and makes it easier to relate to our efforts. However, this time around I'll spare you the story about my early attempts to paint the views over Puget Sound. Just take it as a given that they were so unsuccessful that I nearly gave up on seascapes altogether.

Eventually, I did discover some ways in which seascapes differ from landscapes and with this insight my paintings got a little better. In this article, I want to use some of my new work as an opportunity to talk about those lessons and how they can help you.

Why the sudden interest in beach/seascapes? Since moving to Seattle, I've been drawn to this vast, open area that's right on my doorstep. Stormy and windswept with troughs and crests. Not only a response to my environment, these paintings are a metaphor for the times when life crosses the boundary between controlled and chaotic.



An oil painting of surf, waves breaking on the beach

Surf at Ballard Beach. 10x17, oil on linen panel. 2019.

Now lets dive right into those lessons:

1. Patience is Rewarded

When I see big waves, the right beach conditions and good light, I immediately have an artistic response to it. I'm interested in the intersection of the sky, sea and land where crashing waves become a shorthand way to represent movement, the feel of the wind and the effect of light.

While there's usually enough going on in most landscapes to proof them against less-than-ideal weather and poor light, the seascape turns out to be rather fickle in comparison: if the conditions are off by even a little bit, all the things that made a particular scene interesting can disappear.

This was one of the mistakes I made when I first started painting in Seattle—I didn't know under what conditions the sea would be at its best. I tried to paint when everything was working against me. That immediately put me in the situation of trying to "pretty up" every scene and make it look more interesting than it really was. 

Essentially, what I had found was that if you walk onto the beach at some random time you're unlikely to see all these elements just sitting there waiting for you to show up. You need to learn how the weather, times of day and tides combine to produce the kind of scene you want to paint.

It took me a year or two to discover that morning light at low tide on windy spring days offers the best conditions for the Seattle beaches. North wind seems to provide the biggest wave action at the south end of Puget Sound. Winds from the west and south (which are prevalent in the winter months) don't have enough sea room to generate large waves.

Now that I know when to head out, I have much more success in finding things to paint and don't have to rely on trying to conjure up paint-worthy images from poor reference material. When I make it to the beach I'll try to take lots of reference photos (200+). Because the sea is always moving, each photo is different from the last.


An oil painting of a beach on Puget Sound with crashing waves

Turning of the Tide. 6x12, oil on linen panel. 2019.

2. Seascapes Have a Color Problem

Just as landscapes often suffer from being too green, seascapes have a problem when it comes to blue.

In many ways this is worse than the green problem: blue is a primary color so you only have as many shades of blue in your paintbox as the number of tubes of blue you carry. For me that means chromatic black, ultramarine and radiant blue.

I learned the hard way that if you start out trying to paint the sea a deep blue, it makes it hard to bring the surface of the water to life. In particular, it's difficult to perceive temperature shifts in the darks.

So, in addition to reducing the overall color saturation, I started to reduce the amount of blue in my paintings. I did this by transposing all the colors on the color wheel about one half-step clockwise or counter-clockwise. That means the blues are pushed towards the purples or pulled back into the greens.

Then I use all the same techniques I learned while painting open fields in landscapes and apply them to ocean's surface. I use value, color and temperature variation to give perspective. I use broken color, especially in the foreground, to describe the wave dynamics.


An oil painting of the beach at low tide with a few clouds in a blue green sky

Sand Spit at the Lighthouse. 6x12, oil on linen panel. 2019.

3. The Sea is Always Moving

With practice, seascapes are not any more difficult to paint than a landscape, but the constant movement of the ocean's surface is a fairly unique problem in art.

As a result the plein air seascape is, by necessity, almost entirely an invention—there's simply no way you can paint it "as is" because it changes so much from one second to the next.

Working from photographs in the studio, you end up with the reverse situation: the sea in the picture is static, when the actual sea was in motion. 

I guess there are lots of ways to make the sea look like it's moving. My technique is to paint the unbroken waves as static (more hard edges, better definition) and the crested waves in motion (softer edges, loose definition). I don't hesitate to exaggerate the waves a little bit.

Each of the paintings in this article was done with a painting knife using firm, controlled strokes wherever possible (although some of the freshness of the paint application was lost as I pushed things around). Naturally, all the paint is applied wet-in-wet.


An oil painting of a beach on Puget Sound with crashing waves and gulls in the foreground

Gulls on Ballard Beach. 6x12, oil on linen panel. 2019.

I like to use wide canvases for seascape paintings—it made a big difference when I switched to this format—they help me to choose between composing the painting so that it's dominated by either the sky or the sea and, most importantly, they allow enough room to let the wave forms develop from edge-to-edge.

Narrower formats make things look more static and they restrict your ability to show the way that the waves develop. However, they might be a better choice if you want to focus on the beach rather than the water.



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