Want to learn the 15 steps you need to consider when painting a rocky coastal ocean scene at sunset? Before we get to that let me tell you why this painting was so much fun.
10 years of my wonderful youth were spent in Southern California.
We lived about 3 miles from Del Obispo Beach. It was the perfect combination of sandy shores for swimming and rocky tidal pools for exploring.
We ate amazing clam chowder and key lime pie at The Brig restaurant in Dana Point Harbor. I loved walking along the docks watching the glittering lights on the ocean water at night.
The ocean and all its wonders are forever etched in my happiest memories.
As our membership library continues to grow, several of our members requested a coastal landscape painting tutorial. I was hesitant because I had lived away from the ocean for so many years. I like to paint what I am intimately familiar with because I understand the nuances better.
Then two things happened: (1) our son and his wife moved to Monterey for language training and (2) I got to attend the Plein Air Convention in San Diego.
We took a trip out to visit our family in Monterey, and yes, of course I took my painting gear!
I set my French easel up on a beach in Carmel and painted the fun hills and water reflections while my family played in the waves behind me.
We also went to Point Lobos and spent the day hiking around the trails and studying the tidal pools. You might have already seen the video David posted of the surprise attack by a wave that hit me. into a tidal pool that was filled with hundreds of sea urchins and some anemones.
I’ll post it here again – after all, who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh…
A couple of months later I flew out to San Diego for the Plein Air Convention. They arranged for us to paint at Point Loma where the waves crash beautifully against the rocky cliffs.
When I got there early that morning the sun barely filtered through the dense moisture-filled atmosphere. It was a painter’s dream!
Those opportunities to study and paint the shifting colors and atmospheric conditions of the ocean had an energizing effect on me. My confidence began to grow about painting a coastal landscape.
The ideal situation would have been to complete a study on location for the larger painting. But, since that wasn’t possible, I was happy at least that I had some ocean painting mileage under my belt.
Now let’s discuss the 15 steps it took to finish the final painting.
Starting with Spike (lavender) Oil by Rublev was an experiment – possibly an unhealthy one since there haven’t been any toxicity studies using lavender oil in large amounts. Spike oil evaporates similar to Turpentine and Mineral Spirits, but [supposedly] without the negative health effects.
Colorful transparent watercolor type washes in the beginning of a painting can be really beautiful. I love seeing the colors swirl together. So, I thought I would play with Spike Oil for my initial block-in, since I haven’t used mineral spirits in about 6 years.
Even though this painting’s undertone was one basic color rather than multicolored, I still wanted to play with the Spike Oil to get a feel for it’s working properties.
Using a large size 12 Rosemary Ultimate bristle brush I covered the entire panel with a mixture of Transparent Oxide Red and Transparent Oxide Yellow.
A paper towel would have been faster than a brush, but I didn’t want the Spike Oil and paint color to get absorbed by the towel. I’m also a huge fan of brush texture.
Often a warm reddish-brown undertone is a good complement if there are a lot of greens in the landscape. In this painting, I used the raw sienna type color to work with all the sunset drenched rocks.
You might ask, “If the combination of Transparent Oxide Red and Yellow makes a Raw Sienna color, why not use Transparent Oxide Orange which is the transparent equivalent of raw sienna?” I like to gently mix the other two colors so that each is stronger at one moment than the other. That way the undertone is not one continuous solid color. It just adds the possibility of greater variety and interest.
Members will notice quickly from the videos that I rarely sketch anything with line drawings. I began early on during my art school days to jump right in with large color shape block-ins.
Occasionally, some quick placement lines can be helpful. Rather than a detailed compositional rendering, the lines are simple and easily changed.
There are two main reasons I might use lines:
- When I have a definite image in my mind of where I want the major design elements I will sometimes put down some temporary lines. That helps me keep from getting lost in the exuberance of painting in the large color shapes.
- When I am dealing with specific and complicated architectural shapes. When I was commissioned to paint the childhood home of a family in California I drew in the perspective lines. There were so many Spanish arches and details I wanted to paint them with exactness.
Notice that throughout these first block-in washes I’ve used the same brush – a number 12 Rosemary Ultimate hog bristle. Notice also that the early lines have mostly disappeared – they were meant to be suggestions, not absolutes.
The colors are kept on the darker side of the value scale in the early stages. By keeping the colors darker I can add mid-value saturated colors on top and they will feel bright by contrast. If my colors are too light in the beginning then I will end up adding too much white in the final details to get them bright.
To help the colors look strong and vibrant, I keep most of them in the middle-value range. Then the few bright highlights at the end will feel brighter and the dark shadows will feel darker next to the mid-value colors.
For the lighter sky color, I finally switched to a new brush. I wanted to keep the Manganese Blue color clean and bright. The warm dark colors in the first brush would have dulled and distorted the cooler blue too much.
My mind was so intrigued by the moody dark washes that the bright blue seemed out of place. Since the bright blue looked overly vibrant I ended up graying it down anyway. Guess I could have used the first brush after all.
Step 5 really gets fun. Returning to the original brush, I began to mix the lighter mid-value rock colors.
The middle-value colors are the brilliant ones. When they’re light and full of white paint the colors become desaturated – they look less colorful. When the colors are dark – 8 or 9 on the value scale – we can’t see the color. Colors are at their richest when they are between 3 and 7 on the value scale.
Since I wanted the rocks to be rich in color I kept the values in the middle – except for a bright dash of Cad Lemon or Cad Red Light here and there.
As I formed the rock structures in the water and on the shore I kept away from the shadow shapes. We want to avoid putting lots of smaller shapes within the shadows until we are confident the values are correct.
Also, the tendency when we mess with shadows is to confuse the value relationships. In other words – we end up putting details in the shadows that are the wrong value for a shadow. It’s super important that we keep all the colors in the shadows darker than any of the values in the light areas.
Because I started with that warm orangish tone over the entire panel, it was necessary to cool some of that down to help the feeling of distance. Scumbling a lavender over the farthest hills helped them recede in the painting. The principle is called atmospheric perspective.
Now, there are warmer and cooler lavenders. For this painting, I kept the lavenders on the reddish – or warmer – side of the temperature spectrum. The lavender was still cooler than the orange undertone, but still suggested the warmth of an evening sunset.
I want to point out the varied direction of brush strokes with the paint texture. Changing up the direction of the texture helps create horizontal and vertical planes on the rocks and the feeling of movement in the water and sky.
In step 7 I began increasing by degrees the brightness in the sky. With the vivid colors in the rocks it felt better – like it might belong now. I also applied it with a dry-brushed technique, so it looked like the storm clouds were obscuring the sky behind them.
I also started to bring in some whitecaps to the water. This is where my vision for the painting also changed. I had a decision to make.
I could have stopped here with just a few touch-ups and kept the emotional stormy feeling. Or, I could continue to add thicker paint and more detail and likely lose the raw turbulent quality of the washes.
As you can tell by the extra steps in this tutorial, I decided to keep building up layers of paint and refinement.
If you look closely at the whitecaps you will see that there are several different colors and values. Waves are not cookie-cutter colors. Each one is different from the others around it and from previous waves.
There is a tremendous amount of variation and shifts in all of nature. Textures, colors, values, edges – the list of nuanced differences is endless.
If I’m painting a series of plants, rocks, waves, clouds or anything else with similar characteristics I try to give each one its own unique identity. That’s not only what happens in nature it’s much more fun to look at.
Step 8 was diving in and seeking out interesting structural shifts within the rocks. How do we take a flat object and give it 3-dimensions? With light and shadow!
What took me a while to notice was the iconic image that appeared from those light and shadow details. Can you see the horse head and flowing mane of red?
When I create rock formations like these I began by adding shadows. Once those shadows are in place I think about my light source and paint a highlight or halftone next to the shadow in the direction of that light source. That creates the illusion of light on a rock face casting a shadow behind it.
Bright bluish-purple was added to the water as an experiment – epic fail! The color was too purple and light and took away from the emotional feeling of the painting.
One of the confusing elements in the reference photo is the dark rock jutting out into the water on the lower right. Why does it look like it’s in shadow? To me it looks unnatural and out of place in the photograph.
You can see in this other photo of the same location that the rock isn’t naturally dark.
The large rock to the left in the water has to be blocking the light. The water to the right of that large vertical rock catches so much reflected light that it doesn’t look like it’s the culprit that’s casting such a long shadow.
That rock caused me a lot of exasperation. Should I cut it out entirely? What about making it brighter like all the other rocks. Finally, I chose to compromise by adding light to the top of it.
I felt that if I left it entirely in shadow it would feel out of place. Adding light along the top tied it into the other rocks so it would look like it belonged with its surroundings.
Keeping that darker contrasting object seemed like a good opportunity to break up the bright line of yellow cliffs.
Darker blue with yellows and oranges mixed into gray works much better for the base water tones than that bright bluish lavender in the previous step. Mixing the cliff colors with a darker middle-value blue feels much more natural than the pastel purple I started with.
A good reason for that is because the colors of the rocks will – to an extent – reflect into the colors in the surrounding water.
Keeping the color in the darker middle values also gives me a strong backdrop for waves and highlights.
Jumping so quickly to the bright purple-blue in the previous image showed clearly why I needed to avoid light water. The overly vivid purple water reduced the impact of and competed with the brilliant yellows and oranges in the rocks.
Adding waves and whitecaps to the ocean water gave me leeway to add more details to the rocks as well. The trick is to go back and forth until both have enough detail without getting too carried away.
How do I know when enough is just right? I don’t. That’s part of the subjective and complicated nature of painting.
The waves really stand out strong against the darker middle-value colors in the water. See how we can use a range of light values within the waves and still have them stand out because of those darker values in the water.
An important principle to understand is light and shadow. Often we look at the brightness of waves and paint everything with lots of white.
Waves, however, are 3-dimensional objects like rocks, trees or clouds. They have highlight, halftone and shadow sides to them.
The shadow side of a wave should feel distinctly different in value from the light side. Don’t get confused by the translucent quality of the water. Shadow will still feel like shadow, even on waves.
Above is a close-up of how I scumbled dull green over the warmer reddish hues in the distant hills. Keeping a hint of orange suggests sunset, but the cooler green increases the atmospheric perspective and pushes the hills farther from the viewer.
Notice how the Egbert brush is kept sideways. I then drag the brush lightly over the area I want toned down – barely touching the surface. That way I don’t completely cover the warm tone underneath.
That process gives me control over how much or how little I cover up. I can leave remnants of orange peeking out without them feeling too warm and saturated compared to the closer hills.
The reference image shows bright tannish yellow rocks all along the shore where the plants don’t seem to grow. I decided to go in a different direction. I’m not always sure why I choose to change things up – sometimes it’s just a whim.
In this case, however, the yellow seemed too bright and I wanted to keep the stronger saturated colors closer to the viewer. Also, there was the danger of getting too much warm color everywhere. I wanted a variety of warmer and cooler colors throughout the painting.
So, I went with a pale green band of color for the green/red visual harmony. The color also tied in with the background hills.
Adding the green band increased variety and helped tie together the rocks along the shore.
The sky went through several transformations. I wanted to tie the colors in the sky into the rest of the painting, so I went with a reddish lavender to complement the reds, yellows, and oranges. I used a similar color to the lavender I placed in spots throughout the rocky shoreline to strengthen the painting’s overall harmony.
Even though it’s a sunset time of day, I didn’t want warm reds and yellows in the sky to compete with the colors in the hills. I kept it darker so it would add contrast and help the lower rocks stand out.
To me, it feels like an approaching storm that catches the viewer’s interest without pulling too much away from the primary area of attention at the front of the scene.
Step 15 was keeping the painting around the studio for a few days to look for trouble spots.
Final touches included softening hard edges in the distant hills and watching for incorrect values – especially shadows that feel too dark as they move away from the viewer.
The middle ocean side of the painting needed some sprucing up. So, I placed more whitecapped waves in the water and splashing against the rocks.
The outline of the farthest hill was flat and boring. Adjusting the shape and adding shadows made it much more interesting. It popped the hill out away from the clouds and broke up the sloping line that sped downhill and shot right out of the painting.
I also softened the area near the horizon between the clouds and the ocean. The contrast seemed a bit strong, so I brushed a bluish lavender tone a step or two lighter in value (close to the same value as the water) over the sky near the horizon. I wanted the transition between the sky and the water to be more subtle.
This was a joy to paint. Anytime I get near water I feel like a fish that has been away far too long.
The movement of waves and watching the swirling colors in the water is mesmerizing. I also love the moisture-filled atmospheric haze – it creates incredible opportunities to experiment with grayed down colors that recede from the viewer.
I did have a crisis of decision with this piece. After the early stage washes, when I began to add more detail and thicker paint, the painting started feeling forced and garish to me.
Most of the struggle came from my choice to veer from the original washes.
I really liked the initial block-in but thought it might look unfinished. The trouble was, adding brighter, thicker paint and refining the rocks and water completely changed the moody feeling of the early-stage painting.
I’m often torn about leaving the sketched-in areas of a painting. Is there a line we cross between expressive painting and simply looking unfinished?
I get the thought sometimes that if the paint is too thin it doesn’t count – almost like I’m cheating. I know, there are no rules – so where do thoughts like that come from? Do any of you get limiting ideas like me that might not have any rational foundation.
It probably came from some passing comment long ago by someone who had a bias against thinly applied washy paintings.
Now, maybe the painting is stronger for it, maybe not. The important thing is to analyze why we make certain decisions and determine if they are helping or hurting our artwork. Are we limiting our growth because we cling to flawed concepts?
What are your thoughts?