How to Draw Water: Open Ocean

The open sea rolls with swells, which in turn are covered with smaller waves, which are then rippled by the wind. Capturing this wave on wave action is fun with watercolors. I use a flat brush. The chisel shaped tip makes surprisingly expressive marks. For field sketching, try a “Kuretake” waterbrush. Like my favorite Pentel Aquash brush, this flat holds the water in its handle.

Karatake Waterbrush 

flatbrush waves 2To quickly create the impression of waves at sea, hold a flat brush vertically and “cut” back and forth with the knife-edge of the brush. Play with the length and direction of the marks to create  the effect of waves of different sizes. Make your “water marks” smaller, closer together, and more horizontal as you move into the background.


albatross sea 1

Now let’s use this technique to create the feeling of open ocean waves on overcast seas. Start with broad strokes to represent the major swells. Leave some white paper to represent foam or bright reflections on the water. Keep the strokes more or less horizontal, especially as you move toward the horizon. Hear I lightened the value of the distant water to suggest fog. Note that water is not necessarily blue or green. On an overcast day, the water will reflect the gray color of the sky.



albatross sea 2_1

Using the flat brush, cut in darker waves on top of the larger swells. Lighten the waves in the background by using more diluted paint or by lifting out some of the paint with a damp brush or soft cloth. Waves that are turned away from the light source can be surprisingly dark.

Once the whole page is thoroughly dry, add the albatross. Start with an undercoat of Permanent White gouache. Gouache is a water-soluble paint that is very much like watercolor but opaque. Add the black details once this coat of paint is dry.