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Maybe you’ve painted a landscape—but what about a seascape? It may seem intimidating to accurately capture the gleaming reflections and rippling waves of the ocean, but creating a beautiful watercolor ocean only takes a few basic brushstrokes and layers of paint.  

Inspired to take to the sea? Below, find a step-by-step guide for how to paint the ocean with watercolors. 

How to Paint the Ocean With Watercolors 

Surprisingly, creating a realistic watercolor ocean painting only requires two colors of paint: a pale blue and a darker indigo. Of course, the beauty of watercolor painting is that you can achieve many more shades based on how much water you add to the paper or brush—but you can get started with just two hues.  

In addition to your paints, you’ll need the following materials to paint an easy watercolor ocean picture:

  • A few paintbrushes (a large and small round brush, as well as a flat brush)
  • Watercolor paper
  • Cup of water
  • Paper towel 
  • Masking tape
  • White acrylic paint 

Master Fundamental Watercolor Techniques

Art Essentials: Learn Watercolor Painting Basics

Step 1: Prepare Your Paper

watercolor paper
Place one piece of masking tape across the paper to mark the horizon line. 

Before you begin, tape down your paper on all four sides with masking tape, covering about half an inch on each edge. This will keep it in place while you paint. In addition, when you peel the tape away at the very end, you will be left with a sharp, clean border around your painting.  

Finally, add one more piece of masking tape across the paper to mark the horizon. 

Step 2: Add Gradient Washes 

watercolor ocean
Add a gradient wash to the top of the paper and a reverse gradient wash to the bottom. 

First, use a wet-on-wet technique to paint the foundational layer of the composition. Use a large, flat brush to wet the upper half of the paper. Then, dip the same flat brush into light blue paint and use it to create a gradient wash—starting darker at the top and getting lighter toward the horizon line. You may have to repeat this process a few times to achieve the right level of color. 

(Pro tip: If you ever put too much paint on your paper, just use your paper towel to gently blot it away.)

Then, remove the tape from the middle of the paper and repeat the process in reverse. Wet the lower half of the paper, and then create a reverse gradient, starting darker on the very bottom and getting lighter toward the middle. 

Let this layer of paint dry completely before moving on to the next step. 

Step 3: Outline the Waves

watercolor ocean
To paint waves in your watercolor ocean, use a thin brush to add long, stretched-out mountain shapes. =

To paint the watercolor ocean waves, use the bigger of your two round brushes. Load the brush with some indigo paint—a darker, more blue-grey color than the blue you used for the background in the first step. Then, with a thin brushstroke, paint a long, stretched-out mountain shape along the bottom of the page. Then paint another peak slightly above and to the left of that first wave—then another, and then another. Allow some of them to connect, while others stand alone. This will ensure the waves look organic and dynamic. 

Keep in mind that as you move toward the horizon, the waves should get smaller, with thinner brush strokes. 

Step 4: Create Dimension and Depth 

watercolor ocean
Adding layers of paint to the ocean waves will create more pronounced dark tones, midtones, and lowlights. 

To add depth and definition, use your large round brush to add a layer of paler blue paint (you can use the same blue you used to create the background wash of the painting) under each of the waves. Similar to the previous step, the paint should get lighter—and your brushstrokes thinner—as you move toward the horizon. 

Then, use your small round brush to add a thin line of dark indigo to the top of each wave. Blend the color down just a bit, so you aren’t left with a harsh line. 

Now repeat those two steps—first, painting light blue under the wave, and then adding a darker line of indigo across the top ridge of the wave—a few times. As the layers bleed and blend, the painting will develop more pronounced dark tones, midtones, and lowlights. 

Step 5: Add Detail and Highlights 

watercolor ocean
A few highlights—made with white acrylic paint—really bring the waves to life. 

Finally, add some small dots and thin lines of white acrylic paint to the tops of the waves to create highlights. Focus these highlights mainly in the center of the painting, where the sun would hit the water. 

To break up the composition a bit, you can also add a few small V-shaped birds to the sky portion of the painting. 

When the painting is dry, remove the masking tape, sign the bottom corner, and enjoy your final product! 

Dive In 

Painting the ocean is much different than painting a still life or a landscape; it’s always moving and changing. However, that’s exactly what makes it so breathtaking. And fortunately, with just a couple of watercolor paints and a few brushes, you can create this dynamic, easy watercolor ocean painting. 

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