Painting A Watercolour Seascape Step By Step

In a previous post on this blog How to paint beaches and seascapes in watercolour I looked at a whole range of general techniques and considerations for painting a watercolour seascape. In this post though, I’m going to take a more detailed look at one specific example.

watercolor seascape with rocky headland finished watercolour painting

Materials List


My basic colour palette for painting a watercolor seascape is as follows. I tend to favour Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith Fine watercolours and I’ve linked to where you can purchase these and the other art materials I used 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
Burnt Umber: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Paynes Gray: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Alizarin Crimson: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Dioxazine Purple: Winsor & Newton| Daniel Smith


Da Vinci Paint Brush, Round Quill New Wave Synthetics, Size 2.
Buy from Amazon
Princeton round detail brush 9650R-2
Buy from Amazon
Princeton synthetic squirrel hair mop brush size 6 Buy from Amazon
Mimik synthetic squirrel hair 3/4″ flat brush Buy from Amazon
Small or Medium sized Hake Brush Buy from Amazon


Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Cold Press, 9″ x 12″, 140 pound Buy from Amazon


Easy release painters masking tape Buy from Amazon
Watercolour Palette Buy from Amazon

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

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Step 1: Reference Photo and Preliminary Roughs

original seascape painting photo reference
watercolour seascape sketches and roughs together with my notes on colour palette

On the day that I took the reference photo, the weather conditions were quite variable. There was a brewing storm which created some exciting and dramatic lighting effects to the North. As is often the case, the photo doesn’t capture the sense of drama. That’s why it’s useful to take a sketchbook along with you as the photographic results can often be a bit disappointing. I never allow the photograph to completely dictate the direction of the painting to me. It’s perfectly o.k. to change things if you feel that it makes for a better end result.

I wanted to to make the rock formation the main centre of interest of the seascape. Therefore, it was necessary to make it much more prominent than it is in the photo.

As you can see, I also took some liberties with the colour and tonal values to make it stand out more and make it distinct from the grassy sand bank. I’ve slightly repositioned features such as the lines of surf and the placement of stones to try and lead the eye smoothly towards those central rocks.

The way I like to approach painting a watercolour seascape (Or indeed anything) is to do a very rough tonal sketch followed by several credit card sized colour roughs with varying degrees of detail in order to work out my composition, palette choices and give myself a short “Rehearsal” for the way I’m going to tackle the actual painting.

Preparatory pencil and watercolour sketches

As you can see above.

1. my “tonal sketch” was little more than a few scribbled lines indicating the overall composition and the relative lightness and and darkness of each element, There’s really no need to go overboard on a highly detailed sketch.

2. The first colour rough was also very simple and about the size of a matchbox. No detail, just the basic areas of colour. The idea is simply to work out whether a particular set of colour choices works well or not.

3. Has more detail but is only the size of a credit card, this was painted in less than ten minutes.

4. Having worked out what I need to do, I proceed to the final painting. Watercolour paper is not cheap. Or rather, good quality paper is not cheap. So working out the problems beforehand like this helps you to proceed with confidence and saves money too.

Step 2: Painting The Sky

step2 painting the sky with Ultramarine and Cerulean Blue

Most of the painting was done with a squirrel hair mop brush and the sky was no exception. I’ve changed the sky quite a lot from the photograph. Putting a glow of white cloud around the central rock allowed me to highlight it by giving it apure white backdrop to contrast it against.

The sky was painted by first wetting the top half of the paper with clean water and then painting washes of Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine and allowing them to blend wet into wet.

Painting the sea with a mix of Prussian Blue and Lemon yellow

To paint the rough foamy sea. I used the mop brush again and painted loose squiggles of blue.

The sea colour here (Northland, New Zealand is often a beautiful shade of turquoise that was mixed from Lemon Yellow and Prussian Blue.

Once my initial wash had dried, I went back in with a small round detail brush and added some darker shades of blue under the lip of the breaking waves to indicate shadows.

Step 3: Painting The Sand and Grassy Bank

Step 3, Painting the grassy sand bank

I used a dilute wash of Burnt Umber for the sand but before it had completely dried, I began to paint the grassy sand bank in loose strokes with a mixture of Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.

I wanted to create a variegated wash of green and brown, so I only partially mixed these colours on the palette. Allowing them to mix on the paper creates a much more natural looking range of colour and tone.

Step 4: Painting The Rocks

Step 4. Painting the Rocks

A flat brush is perfect for creating sharp knife edged shapes, so it works really well for land masses and rock formations. I mixed a violet from Ultramarine, Paynes Gray and Alizarin Crimson.

This mix was a little bit too cool so I pushed it to the warm side with a little Dioxazine Purple. This created a nice contrast with the yellow in the sand bank, making the rock formation a distinct and separate element.

Painting the wet sand

Where the water meets the sand, it leaves a dark tide mark which tends to have a purplish hue. So with a small round brush, I’m adding a thin glaze of purple over the sand at the edge of the wave.

When this glaze had completely dried, I added a very thin line of shadow along the edge of the broken foaming water.

Adding texture to the rocks with a flat brush

Once the basic shape of the rock formation was done and dry, I used the flat brush again to add texture.

Turning the brush on its edge is useful for creating thin cracks and on its flat side to drag in faces and blocky shadows.

Painting the foreground rocks with a flat brush and a mixture of violet and brunt umber

Now that all the large areas are complete, it’s time to start adding the last few elements. The dark rocks in the sand were added with the flat brush again.

I used a mixture of Burnt Umber and mixed in some Dioxazine Violet adding a near complement helped to cool down the warm Burnt Umber and bring it closer to a neutral gray.

If you are a bit puzzled by the process of mixing colours, or if your colours tend to end up looking a bit muddy and you’re not sure why. Take a look at my detailed post on colour theory and colour mixing that should clear up any confusion you might have.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Step 5 Finishing touches with a small detail brush

Now all that is left is to add the final small details. Some artists call this “The Calligraphy” and that’s an apt analogy. It does feel a bit like dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s and adding a few hastily scribbled notes.

It can be tempting to do too much at this point and end up over working the picture. A few flicks of the brush to add a little bit of detail can punch up the contrast a bit and add some movement and energy but always err on the side of caution.

Adding some shadow to the clouds

It was a bit of an afterthought but I decided that the clouds could do with a litttle bit of subtle shadow, so I simply added a very thin wash of pale purple with a small round brush. In order to soften any hard edges, I gave it a quick spray of clean water from a misting bottle.

Watch the YouTube Video Here

So that’s my seascape completed. If you found this step by step approach useful, or if you have any questions about the process that I didn’t address. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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