Seascapes in Watercolour

Seascapes in Watercolour

Ahoy, there all ye landlubbers! Although most of us live on land, there has always been a mysteriousness to the sea, not just because we can’t live in it, but because of its depth – both literally and metaphorically!

So if you’re tired of doing landscape paintings, or just want to try something different, let’s dive right into painting a watercolour seascape.

Step 1: Quick Sketch 

First is of course deciding on your composition. You can look for references online, or draw from real life if you’re lucky enough to live near the sea. 

Next, play around with the composition by making a few quick thumbnail sketches. Feel free to include distant mountains, boats, a lighthouse, a beach…anything to add a little interest to your seascape! 

Though of course, the sea should take up the most space here.

When you’ve decided on a composition, transfer the sketch with quick pencil outlines on your watercolour paper.

Remember that you don’t need to add in every wave or detail of the sea. Just make sure to place your horizon line in a good spot (this applies to landscape paintings too), and draw lightly to preserve the paper’s surface.

General advice that applies to painting water reflections and landscapes applies here too!

For example, try not to centre the horizon line and work in the “Rule of Thirds” instead. Also, tilt your painting surface slightly to let gravity do some work for you.

Bonus tip: For seascapes especially, you’ll want to use good quality paper, as things will get quite watery! I definitely recommend Etchr’s 100% cotton sketchbooks, since they’re great for handling wet washes.

Step 2: First Layer 

Once you’ve done a sketch (which is optional but recommended if it’s your first time), it’s time to prepare your paints! You’ll want a large mop brush for the first layer and a larger palette for mixing enough paint.

I recommend painting the sky first (check out Jun’s tutorial on painting clouds and skies), using the “wet-in-wet” technique for softer blends.

This means wetting the paper first, then dropping your colours in so it spreads out naturally. You’ll use this same technique when painting the sea, so keep it in mind!

Next, you can do a light wash for anything else in the background, such as mountains or islands.

It’s better to wait for the sky to dry first unless you’re going for a blurry effect to create a bigger sense of distance.

The key here is to be clear where the horizon line is and to have it so both the sky and sea get lighter in tone as you near the horizon line.

This will create a misty effect, and add to the sense of perspective and depth.

As for the actual sea area, they’re generally full of blues, greens, and maybe even purples or reds (depending on the season and time of day), but pick one darker colour to be your main sea colour, with the rest matching the sky’s colour, plus a blue and/or blue-green like turquoise.

Paint a layer for the sea, using the “wet-in-wet” technique again, and fading it towards the horizon line.

Tip: The calmer the waters, the more it reflects. So if you’ve included a beach, or want a stormier sea, leave more room for white foam generated by bigger waves, or try to avoid painting the foamy areas completely.

If there’s anything in the foreground, such as a boat, lighthouse, beach, etc, you can either leave them alone or wait for the sea layer to dry before painting a light wash of the base colours on top.

Step 3: Building Up

Keep layering in the same general order as step 2, building up the depth and colours in the sea.

Remember that everything in the distance will be quite light in colour and have the least amount of contrast, while areas nearer to the foreground will be darker. 

The only exception would be shallow or foamy waters – for example, if you’ve added a beach, so the water is shallow enough to generate foam and/or show the sand beneath.

Bonus tip: Things in the foreground will have more details and contrast, which will be key in adding the illusion of depth and distance in your painting.

The biggest question is when to stop! I’d recommend having at least 5 different tones, ranging from white (the lightest areas, which most likely will be foamy and reflected highlights) to your darkest colour.

Step 4: Wave-like Brushstrokes

When adding layers to the sea, one good technique is to stick to horizontal brushstrokes, as this reflects the movement of water. Also, make sure to leave room for some crested waveshapes! 

It will be very helpful to look at image references here, and again, to add a sense of perspective, wave shapes will be clearer and larger as you near the foreground or shoreline.

One exception to this rule is if there is something in the water, including boats, islands, rocks, land, etc. In that case, the surrounding waters will “wrap around” whatever it is.

Waves that approach the shore will also shift and become more parallel to the shoreline.

In any case, the best advice I can offer is to study your reference picture carefully, and see how the waves are shaped.

Step 5: Other Details

Finally, make sure to add any extra details included in your composition! Boats and lighthouses make great contrasts to the sea view, though they do require more precision when painting. 

They’ll also be a greater indication of your light source, so don’t forget to add shadows in the appropriate areas.

One way to help your waves stand out is to add a shadow right underneath the foamy crest, as this will be the darkest part of any wave.

Another thing you might want to use is white gouache paint if you want to add more highlights (especially for wave splashes and shiny reflections). 

A good indicator is to step back and look at the overall painting, and if certain parts look too dull, dark, or just doesn’t make sense in terms of your light source(s), then it’s probably a good idea to break out the white gouache. 

This definitely should be the very last thing you do though!

Sail Away

Due to the sea’s freeform nature, there’s honestly an endless number of seascapes to paint, but hopefully, these tips have helped you understand more about how to paint the sea. 

You can also apply the same tricks to try out different styles, from a more laissez-faire style (i.e. looser brushstrokes) to a more realistic style.  

As always, the best way to learn is definitely to try it out for yourself, and to practice! You’ll find your sea legs one day.

Have you painted the sea before? Which part do you find most challenging for seascapes? Feel free to share pictures and comments with us in the space below!


Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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1 comment

Super interesting post!

Blair Smith

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