How to paint the ocean

How to Paint the Ocean: Step by Step

Learn how to paint the ocean with this step by step tutorial. The main techniques we will use for this tutorial are painting wet on wet and blending. Broadly, you can complete the ocean part of the painting in four main steps.

It doesn’t matter if you have oils or acrylics, as the techniques are identical. If you are using acrylic paint and you want to extend the open working time of the paint, get a medium to help with this.

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Paint the ocean: Video Tutorial

To see the ocean painting process in full, tune into the video! You can see me mix the colours and work through the painting step by step. If you want to see the full supplies list, skip down to the section at the bottom.

Paint the ocean: Step by step

Use this image as a reference—a print of my painting ‘Deep Blue’ can be purchased through my print shop.

There are broadly four main steps to create this painting. First we block in the darkest areas, then we will paint in the mid tones, then adjust the values of the mid tones to create form, then we will add highlights. Painting the sky is really simple, you can choose to paint this first, or leave it until after you’ve painted the sea. 

Step 1: Mix the colours

It can be beneficial to mix most of your colours first, as it saves time and interruptions when you are in the flow of painting. I like doing this with oil paints, as oils dry slowly, so I know that within one, or two sessions, the paint won’t dry up on the palette. You can get a palette sealer to extend the open working time of the paint on the palette, to keep colours wet for days at a time.  

Sea colours

The sea colours are mixed with varying quantities of ultramarine blue, burnt umber and titanium white. The darkest shade on my palette is mixed with around 2 parts ultramarine compared to burnt umber. We’ll use this colour to block in the darkest shades of the painting in the first layer. You can mix quite a bit of this colour as you can use parts of it to mix the other mid tones we’ll need for the painting.

I use the darkest tone as a base to mix my mid tones. Then I mixed four mid tone colours, for each tone I increased the brightness and saturation with titanium white and ultramarine blue slightly. I mixed transitional shades between each tone with my brush as I worked my way through the painting. You’ll probably find you’ll want to mix new colours as you progress too.

I created a new mix for my highlight tone which was roughly five parts titanium white and one part ultramarine blue, with a tiny dot of burnt umber. You don’t have to be too precise about mixing, analyse the reference to inform your colour mixing. 

Sky colours

The first shade, nearest the top of the canvas, is a mix of a large amount of titanium white, with a small amount of phthalo blue. Then mix even more titanium white, with a tiny amount of phthalo blue and a dot of lemon yellow for the sky colour nearest the horizon, to give it a post-sunrise glow. Use the two colours to mix a new transitional shade, that will make blending the two colours easier when you come to apply it to the canvas.

For the cloud colour, take the lightest mid tone shade and mix with the lemon yellow colour. The colour is fairly similar in tone to the sky colour.

Step 2: Block in the darkest areas

The first step of applying paint to the canvas is blocking in the darkest shapes of the painting. You can use these as reference points to determine where all the other elements will fit in around them. 

For this step use the darkest mix of ultramarine and burnt umber. These are both transparent pigments that will appear more transparent when thinned with solvent. This doesn’t matter though, as you can paint over these sections eventually. 

These dark areas form the ripples in the water, the top of the ripples are catching the light, so leave these sections until you come to paint the highlights. 

The ripples stretch across the panel, in broad peaks and troughs. The top part and middle part of the water slants down to the left and the bottom section of the water slants down to the right. The darkest area is near the top and middle. Whereas in the bottom part of the water—the darker and lighter tones are closer in value.

I’m using a medium sized stiff synthetic filbert brush for this step as it has round edges. Most of the ripple shapes are round and vary in thickness. There are no real sharp or flat edges in this painting. By applying more pressure with a thicker brush, it will create a wider line. You definitely don’t need anything too specific to enjoy painting seascapes like this, but certain tools will help you to create effects like this with ease.

The light source in this painting is coming from the top left. The shadows are being cast in this direction. We’ll use this knowledge to inform how we paint our darker mid tones. We know it’s going to be darker in the areas where the ripples are blocking the light.

Step 3: Paint mid tones

Establish the mid tones over the darkest areas you’ve already blocked in. Start with the lighter mid tones in this section, because the lightest tones take up the largest area of the water.

There will be a fair amount of contrast between the dark and light tones. Use a darker mid tone colour as a transitional shade to blend the darkest tones into the lightest tone. These mid tones will blend into one another and appear softer.

The shadows in this painting appear under the large ripple in the middle of the right hand side of the painting, the mid tones underneath this will be darker than the rest of the painting.

Step 4: Alter mid tones

In this stage, refine the mid tones. Increase the darkness of the shadows and layer in some lighter mid tones on the top of the ripples. Smooth out the transition between dark and light with mid tones and blend with a clean soft brush.

Step 5: Paint the highlights

The brightest highlights are on the top of the ripples in the top section of the painting. I’m painting with the lightest colour on the palette and a small rigger brush. Any detail brush, like a round brush, or even the edge of a flat brush would work well for this too. These highlights blend into the mid tones, so it’s best to paint wet on wet. To make it look realistic, make sure there’s a gradation between the darkest shadow and the lighter shade. This is what gives each ripple the appearance of volume. Use your soft blending brush if you need to make these gradations appear softer.

The section at the bottom is less contrasted—the lightest and darkest values are close in tone. So for this section we can use lighter mid tones.

Step 6: Paint the sky

Carefully line around the shapes of the water at the horizon with the lightest colour. You might need to use a smaller brush for this section.  

Then make sure you have a transitional shade mixed between the horizon colour and blue that will go at the top of the canvas. We’ll paint this colour next, you can use a wider brush for this. Then finally we’ll paint the darkest blue at the top.

Get a clean soft brush and blend the colours out until they look smooth. To paint the cloud, get the darker sky shade from your palette, and use the edge of a brush to stipple the cloud formation. I’m using the round shape of the filbert brush to make small wispy cirrus clouds, but you can make any formation you like. The trick here is blending out the cloud shapes lightly with your soft brush.

Supplies you need to paint the ocean

Oil paint

I use a limited palette for this painting. I work in oil colours, but you can choose to work in acrylic if you prefer. Here are the colours I’m using:

  • Ultramarine blue: I use this colour for the sea. It’s a transparent deep blue that points slightly towards purple on the colour spectrum.
  • Phthalo blue: also called cyan blue, this is a primary blue that I use to mix my sky colour. 
  • Lemon yellow: this is a bright, acidic yellow that leans towards green. I mix it with the phthalo blue to create a light sunrise glow.
  • Burnt umber: this is the colour I use to create shadows and neutralise the mix. When mixed in equal parts with ultramarine, this will make black.
  • Titanium white: an opaque white used to create highlights.

If you’re working with acrylics, you can use the same colours I used. Golden are a great brand that make these colours, their open acrylics dry much more slowly than regular acrylics, alternatively you could add their Open medium to regular acrylics to slow the drying time.

Surface

You can use whatever surface you like. Oil paper, canvas, wooden panel or gessobord are all great options. I’m using a smooth primed panel. The smooth texture allows me to paint small details. Plus, it comes primed with gesso which saves the time spent having to prepare the panel for painting. 

Palette

For oil painting, wood, glass or tear off palettes are all great options. I use a tempered glass palette as these are shatter resistant, extra smooth for mixing colours onto and have a large area to mix as many shades as you like. 

Brushes

Brushes with firmer bristles are useful for blocking in large areas, like skies and painting the first layers. I use a stiff synthetic filbert brush to paint the first layer of the sea, paint the sky and stipple the clouds.

Goat mop brushes are great for blending—the bristles are ultra soft and wide. So you will be able to blend large areas of paint. Although you can use any kind of soft clean brush for blending.

The other brushes I use for the last layers of highlights and altering mid tones are soft red sable oil brushes by da Vinci. I find these excellent for painting details, especially the rigger variety.

Mediums

For the first layer of the oil painting, I thinned the paint with oil of spike lavender which is a type of solvent. This makes the paint runnier and dry faster. You can use another kind of solvent to get the same effect, like turpentine or odourless mineral spirits like Gamsol

For the next and final layers of my painting, I wanted to make my paint runny, but I wanted the paint film to have more lustre and stability. So I used this ‘Fat Medium’ by Chelsea Classical Studio. This is made with linseed oil and damar resin. You could get the same effect by adding linseed oil to the paint mix. 

However, mediums aren’t necessary to achieve these effects, it can be helpful to make paint runnier to achieve finer details and work with soft brushes, but you can just paint straight from the tube. 

Cleaning up

I clean up solvent-free, as it’s better for your health. I also think it’s easier cleaning up solvent free; swirl brushes around in a brush soap like the Masters Brush Cleaner and Restorer to remove residue. If you want to clean your brush while painting before dipping it into a new colour, dip the brush in some safflower oil and wipe on a paper towel to remove the pigment from the bristles.

Easel (optional)

You don’t need an easel for oil painting, but it is really helpful propping your surface up vertically to work, especially for larger pieces. I use a H frame easel, as these are the most sturdy. But you can get inexpensive table top easels which are perfect if you are working at a smaller scale. For a look at more oil painting supplies, check out our guide.


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