How To Paint Seascapes and Beaches in Watercolor

A beach might seem like a relatively simple subject to paint. Just sand, sea, sky, rocks but seascapes can present some deceptively complex problems. In this post. I’ll show you how to paint seascapes and beaches in watercolor and help you to identify and solve some of the the problems you will encounter in this medium.

Beaches and seascapes are one of my favorite subjects to paint. I’m lucky to live close to some really stunning pristine beaches here in New Zealand and the luminous medium of watercolor is particularly well suited to this subject.

Choosing a Color Palette For Watercolor Seascapes

Your color palette will, no doubt differ from mine, so I offer the following color palette list as a suggestion only.

There is definitely no single paint tube that I can point you to that is the definitively correct color of the sea. Sea color depends upon a myriad of factors. Where I live, for instance, the sea can range from cool grays and greens through to intense turquoise and plum purple depending on the weather, the time of year/day, the color of the sand and the amount of vegetation and minerals in the water. So you will need to decide on a color palette that feels right to you.

My basic color palette for painting beach and seascapes is as follows. I tend to favor Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith Fine watercolors and I’ve linked to where you can purchase these from Amazon.

Cerulean Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Ultramarine Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Prussian Blue: Winsor & Newton |Daniel Smith
Lemon Yellow: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Cadmium Yellow: Winsor & Newton |Daniel Smith
Raw Sienna: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Burnt Sienna: Winsor & Newton |Daniel Smith
Burnt Umber: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Paynes Gray: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Alizarin Crimson: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Dioxazine Purple: Winsor & Newton| Daniel Smith

Please click here for a complete list of my recommended art supplies.

I tend to avoid Pthalo Blue as it is such an artificial looking blue that I feel that I would have to tame it considerably but many other painters would not have a problem with using it and do so successfully. So don’t take any of this as gospel.

Harmony And Contrast

Cool and warm colour contrast examples

Colors that are adjacent on the color wheel are called “Harmonious”. Contrasting colors or “Complementaries” are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Beach scenes naturally tend to have these harmonies and contrasts in abundance. Greens and blues, violets and yellows are commonly found in beach scenes and work beautifully together. For more on color theory and color mixing see this post. how-to-mix-watercolor the best way

Plan for these contrasts and harmonies by being aware of them and choosing a color palette that plays to those strengths. You can change the whole mood of a painting by leaning the whole painting towards the cooler or warmer side of the color wheel. Or by making a large area of warm or cool color dominant in your painting.

In the example below from my sketchbook, I’m experimenting with finding a good balance of warm and cool colors. Reducing the amount of green and adding more blues and violets into the headland while maintaining strong warm colors in the foreground. I’m trying to achieve a subtle balance of harmonies and contrasts.

Watercolor sketchbook seascape painting notes

Painting The Sea

Watercolor sketchbook seascape
The sea often becomes darker not lighter as it recedes towards the horizon

One of the general rules of atmospheric perspective in landscape painting is that elements become paler the further away they are. For example distant fields will be lighter and bluer than close ones. If you observe the sea though, you may notice that this rule is often reversed.

See the example above. The land mass in the distance has become pale and misty but the sea is getting darker. The reason for this apparent contradiction is due to the nature of the sea, which can be simultaneously transparent, reflective and opaque. The visual properties of the sea depend upon the position of the sun, the color of the sky and the clarity of the water. Clear shallow water allows for more of the sandy bottom to become visible and thus, on pale sand, the sea tends to get lighter in the foreground.

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Painting Waves & Ripples On Water

Take a flat brush and paint a graduated wash on dry paper, starting from dark blue to pale blue at the bottom wait for the paint to thoroughly dry. Indicate breaking waves by leaving white gaps in your wash. You could mask off white areas with masking fluid if you want to but I usually find it easier to simply leave strategically placed gaps in my wash. Once it is dry, take a round brush and paint the ripples in small curving strokes over the graduated wash. Create the illusion of depth by making the strokes thinner and smaller as they recede into the distance.

Painting Sand: Color and Texture

Sand needs to be handled carefully. It can be surprisingly problematic to depict convincingly. Sand can vary a lot in its value particularly when wet. It can range from very dull warm neutrals to cool blues and pale pinks and violets. It’s almost never yellow though.

The colors I tend to favor for sand are Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber and Burnt Umber in various combinations. Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna need to be handled with particular care as they can easily become too intense. Start with very weak washes. Raw Umber is probably the safest option but still works best in very dilute washes. As always, in watercolor it’s easy to add more but not so easy to take it away.

Flicking paint from a brush and spatter effects from an old toothbrush are great ways to add texture to sand and rocks.

Toothbrush paint spatter effect

Painting Wet Sand

Watercolor sketchbook notes for a beach scene

Just like flat expanses of water, wet sand reflects everything above it like a mirror. Though the colors and values will be less intense in the reflection.

Depicting wet sand and especially the transition between the sea and wet sand can present a challenge to the watercolor painter. As the sea becomes shallower and meets the sand. The reflected blue of the sky tends to become a warmer violet color.

Watercolor beach scene painting: Reflections in wet sand
Paint wet into wet with minimal brushing to create reflections in wet sand

In practice though, painting a sand color such as Raw Sienna next to a blue sea color, such as Ultramarine will tend to result in green streaks. This illustrates how paint often works quite differently to pure light. Too avoid this happening, always paint wet into wet and allow the colors to simply run into each other with as little brushing as possible. This way the colors will blend but not combine and form the tertiary green.

At the transition point of sea and sand add in a small touch of red to push the blue towards violet. Successfully making this transition work can take a bit of practice and timing because if the paper is too saturated the mixing will be completely uncontrollable.

Painting Rocks and Stone

How to paint seascapes and beaches in watercolor. Beach and rocks Watercolor Sketch
Beach sketch with warm and cool neutrals for the the rocks
Watercolour Plein Air sketch seascape

When painting rocks it may help you to visualise them initially as simple geometrical block forms and then add more complexity. Consider which direction the light is coming from in your painting and determine which facets of the rock are pointing directly into the light and which are pointing directly away from the light these will form hard edges of high contrast.

You can assign a mid value for reflected light hitting rock facets which are in between these two extremes. The arrow in the illustration below shows the direction of the light. Which is generally going to be from above. The darkest shadows of all are the shadows cast by the rocks.

how to draw and paint rocks in beaches and seascapes #watercolor #paintingtutorial #watercolorarts #acuarelas #watercoloring #howtopaint

Creating Strong Contrasts

Juxtaposing light and dark values to create strong contrasts is a technique that is well suited to watercolor. Try to find ways to include strong contrasts in your beach scenes. Choose a viewpoint painting into the light which naturally creates silhouettes. Gathering clouds, reflections of the sky in wet sand ,sparkling light reflected on the sea water are all good candidates for creating drama and interest .

In the painting of my son Alex on the beach at Waipu Cove. On Arches 300gsm. I mainly used two brushes. A no. 6 round brush and a half inch flat brush. I’ve tried to include as much dramatic contrast as possible by painting directly into the light and positioning the figure for maximum contrast. The effect of light shimmering on the water was done by dragging the nearly dry round brush horizontally across the paper allowing the texture of the paper to create the white space.

Boy on the beach watercolour painting #watercolor #paintingtutorial #watercolorarts #acuarelas #watercoloring #howtopaint

I like to produce small “Thumbnails” to experiment with contrasting values before thinking about adding any color at all. See the examples below.

Watercolour Sketchbook: Beach scene
tonal, composition and colour watercolour sketch studies

Painting Seagulls

Watercolour Sketchbook. Seagulls on 90 mile beach

What beach scene is truly complete without some seagulls? I always try and include a couple even if they are only of the symbolic kind i.e quickly rendered in mid flight with a couple of simple curving lines from a rigger brush. I always try and vary them in some way though because I don’t want them to look too regular in appearance.

As an additional help here are some seascape painting videos from my YouTube channel. While you’re at it. Why not subscribe? I upload regular demonstration videos about once a week.

My YouTube Watercolor Seascape Videos

That concludes my post on how to paint seascapes and beaches in watercolor. My final tip is really to just to get out there and try a bit of Plein Air beach painting if you haven’t done so yet and not just stick to photographs. I do both and I’ve tried to include a number of my Plein Air sketches in this post to hopefully encourage you to do that. O.K. the sand will get into your paints, and the wind can be a major annoyance but it can result in some surprising and fresh paintings.

If you’ve had success using a completely different palette to mine, I’d love to know what you use. Let me know by leaving a comment underneath. I’m always keen to test out new ideas and suggestions.

How to paint seascapes and beaches in watercolor step by step

If you found this post useful. Check out my other posts on Painting a seascape step by step and How to paint reflections on water.

Recommended Watercolor Seascape Painting Books

Paint the Sea and Shoreline in Watercolor Using Special Effects

E John Robinson’s books were among the first watercolor books I ever read, he’s a master of many media and this book is one I’d highly recommend.

Buy Paint the Sea and Shoreline in Watercolor Using Special Effects From Amazon

Buy Create Dramatic Coastal Scenes in Watercolor by Carlton Plummer From Amazon

6 thoughts on “How To Paint Seascapes and Beaches in Watercolor”

  1. I appreciate all your to inspirational methods, I know they’ll be helpful.
    Semper Fi
    Pete

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