Watercolor oceans and waves are breathtaking on their own—but add a dolphin, and you can take your waterscape to the next level. Dolphins can add movement and visual interest to your paintings. And fortunately, because they have a fairly simple silhouette, it’s actually very easy to add a watercolor dolphin to your paintings. 

Not sure how to paint one of these majestic animals? Below, we guide you through it step by step. 

How to Paint a Watercolor Dolphin 

Add visual interest to your waterscape with a pair of watercolor dolphins. 

Incorporating watercolor dolphins into your ocean painting is an easy way to add a focal point and visual interest. Dolphins have a fairly simple silhouette, but it’s important that you get the shape, proportions, and lighting right to make them look realistic. 

Before you get started, gather your materials:

  • Watercolor paints in shades of yellow, orange, blue, brown, and black 
  • Watercolor brushes in several sizes, including a large, flat brush for brushing the paper with water 
  • Palette for mixing
  • Cup of water
  • Watercolor paper
  • Pencil
  • Kneaded eraser 

Step 1: Paint Your Background

Adding thin black lines to the surface of the ocean will help it look more realistic. 

Before you paint dolphins, you need an ocean background. Painting the ocean with watercolors requires its own tutorial, but here are the basics: 

Start by dividing your paper into two halves: the sky and the water. First, wet the upper half of the canvas with a clean, damp brush. Then, add color to the paper beginning with the lightest area of the sky: the sun. Paint a circle with a bright yellow, keeping the very center white. Blend the yellow outward, adding in orange and then blue. With this wet-on-wet technique, the colors will naturally blend together to effortlessly create the colors of a sunrise. With a smaller brush, use dark oranges and blues to add in clouds. 

On the bottom half of the canvas, use the same colors, but in reverse. Start with the reflection of the sun in yellows and oranges, and then blend it out to a steely blue. Then, using dark blues and browns, add diagonal strokes to create perspective and the illusion of ocean waves. Finally, use a very fine brush and black paint to add thin lines of detail across the surface of the ocean. This will take some time and patience, but it goes a long way to add texture and realism to your painting. 

Give Your Dolphins the Perfect Backdrop

Simple Watercolor Ocean: Painting Tutorial for Beginners

Step 2: Sketch the Dolphins 

Using very light pressure, sketch the outline of a watercolor dolphin directly onto your painting. 

Let the background dry completely. Then, use a pencil to lightly sketch your dolphins on the paper. Start with the curve of the dolphin’s back—this will act as a blueprint for the rest of the dolphin’s anatomy. 

At one end of the curve, sketch in the dolphin’s tail, which generally looks like an upside-down heart or a letter U. At the other end of the curve, create a head that slopes down into a long, narrow nose. Then, add a dorsal fin along the back, as well as a pectoral flipper closer to the head. 

If you’re not confident in your sketching abilities, try drawing the dolphin on a scrap piece of paper a few times before you commit to sketching it directly onto your painting. However, if you make a mistake when sketching on your painting, don’t worry—you can use a kneaded eraser to remove your lines, even from the painted background. 

Step 3: Paint the Silhouettes From Light to Dark 

To create a glowy, sun-kissed look, use a burnt sienna at the tip of the watercolor dolphin’s tail before adding in a dark brown-black to the rest of the body.  

Because the light source—the sun—is behind the dolphins, they will be dark against the rest of the painting. However, that doesn’t mean you should simply paint them flat black. Just like when painting other watercolor subjects, you should start with the lightest shade and move to the darkest color. 

For these watercolor dolphins, you will see the lightest shade at the ends of their tails, where the sun would hit them most directly. To illustrate this in watercolor, use a burnt sienna color to start painting at the tips of their tails. 

Once you’ve painted about one-third of the dolphin’s body, switch to a darker brown, and then blend it into a near-black color by the time you reach the dolphin’s head. This gradient effect will create the look of a glowy reflection from the sun on the dolphins’ tails. 

Dive In

Dolphins can infuse your watercolor paintings with movement and life. And fortunately, because dolphins have a simple silhouette, they are fairly easy to illustrate. With a general understanding of their shape and a keen eye for the light source, you can incorporate stunning watercolor dolphins into your next painting. 

Master the Fundamentals 

Art Essentials: Learn Watercolor Painting Basics

Written by:

Katie Wolf