“What colors do I use to paint the ocean?” I was asked this question and thought it would make in interesting blog post. As I mentioned before, these are my opinions after years of study and observations. Someone else might have a different explanation.
It’s not possible to give an exact color formula for painting the ocean. The colors will shift with the energy of the water – a calm sea with gentle swells, a windy day with choppy seas, a heavy storm surf, bright sunshine, cloudy skies, colorful skies and the time of day – these all influence the colors we see.
Water reflects colors that are perpendicular to its surface. Flat planes reflect the sky color, the angled planes of the waves are darker and are influenced by surrounding objects and other waves.
Aerial perspective also influences the color of the water making it appear lighter and grayer in the distance, darker and more colorful as it comes forward. But I have seen times when the ocean is darker in the distance because of cloud shadows and atmospheric conditions. When painting this reverse effect, care is needed to maintain the illusion of depth in your painting.
Waves are triangular in shape, thicker and darker at the base, growing thinner and a more translucent blue/green as they begin to crest. The foam and sea spray from the crashing waves fragment into prisms that reflect bits of sparkling light and color from the sun. There is a thickness to the foam that calls for subtle shadows and cast shadows. If the sun isn't shining, these effects are modified.
Water is both reflective and transparent. The land underneath the water influences the color of the water, especially near the shore where the water is shallow. Sandy beaches may have turquoise water in the shallows. Dark sand and rocky beaches will have darker water. Water crashing against the rocks will be changed. Your viewing perspective also influences what you see. Are you looking across the water or down into it?
Nearby objects reflect into still water. The color of these reflected objects are subdued because the water absorbs some of the energy from these reflections. And the ocean is never perfectly still, the shapes and colors of reflections waver and distort.
Avoid using intense colors, straight from the tube, or heavy dark colors. Choose a variety of muted blues, greens, grays and brown for starters. Then the reflected colors are chosen. Coloration is important. If you study nature you will see that there is a great variety of subtle grays and delicate shadings. And please, never pure white, always add a bit of color to your white. White is a color killer and always a student problem in art class. Use lighter colors or lighter analogous colors to lighten and brighten.
The ocean is very complex and always in motion. Affected by the tide and weather conditions, the sea continually changes shapes and colors. Study, direct observation and practice are necessary. You will benefit from doing many small studies. Studies that are failures are very important for understanding what works and what doesn't.
Working from photographs can be tricky. Remember the sign in my studio that says “Photographs are 99% wrong.” If you copy them exactly your painting will look artificial. You need to understand the nature of the sea. The best way is to spend time looking at the ocean and watching what happens as the light changes and the water moves. That is why it is so important to paint subject matter that you are familiar with – but that is another topic for another day.
Thanks for visiting with me. I hope this information was helpful. Your comments and questions are always welcome.