In this oil painting tutorial, you will learn 15 steps to help you paint a rocky coastal ocean scene at sunset.
- Step 1 – Initial Block-In Wash
- Step 2 – Sketch in the Placement of Major Compositional Shapes
- Step 3 – Fill Large Shapes with Middle-Value Colors
- Step 4 – Add Manganese Blue to the Sky – Then Remove It
- Step 5 – Add Paint Texture to the Rocks with More Middle-Value Colors
- Step 6 – Create Atmospheric Perspective
- Step 7 – A Decision Point – Loose, Sketchy, and Emotional or More Detail?
- Step 8 – Paint Shadow and Light for Structure in the Rocks
- Step 9 – Removing a Purple Mistake and Developing the Water
- Step 10 – What to do About the Dark Rock?
- Step 11 – Painting Waves and Emotion in the Water
- Step 12 – Using an Egbert Hog Bristle Brush to Scumble Cool Greens in the Distant Hills
- Step 13 – Painting Striations and Variety in the Rocks
- Step 14 – Painting the Stormy Sky
- Step 15 – Observing the Painting for a Few Days and Final Touches
At the end of the post, I will share my story and why I love painting ocean scenes.
Now let’s discuss the 15 primary steps it took to finish the final painting.
Step 1 – Initial Block-In Wash
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. It quickly made my skin flush and I have decided not to continue using it.
Colorful transparent watercolor type washes at 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 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.
Step 2 – Sketch in the Placement of Major Compositional Shapes
Members will notice quickly from the videos that I rarely sketch anything with line drawings. I began early on during art school to jump right in with large color-shape block-ins. But, 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 keep me from getting lost during 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.
Step 3 – Fill Large Shapes with Middle-Value Colors
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 guides, 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 shadows will feel darker next to the mid-value colors.
Step 4 – Add Manganese Blue to the Sky – Then Remove It
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. I guess I could have used the first brush after all.
Step 5 – Add Paint Texture to the Rocks with More Middle-Value Colors
Step 5 really gets fun. Returning to the original brush, I began to mix the lighter mid-value rock colors. I like to use a large hog-bristle brush (like the Rosemary Ultimate series) because the thick bristles allow me to create wonderful texture in the paint. Thick impasto texture is one of the characteristics of oil paint that I love.
Why do I talk so much about middle-value colors? Because they are more saturated and rich looking than light or dark values.
When we mix light value colors with lots of white paint, the white pigment cools the color temperature and desaturates the hues – 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.
Step 6 – Create Atmospheric Perspective
Because I started with a warm orangish tone over the entire panel, it was necessary to cool some of that down to increase the feeling of distance. Scumbling a lavender hue over the farthest hills helped them recede in the painting.
This principle is called atmospheric perspective.
Remember that 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 suggested the warmth of an evening sunset.
I want to point out the varied direction of the brushstrokes and the paint texture. Changing up the direction of the bristle texture helps create horizontal and vertical planes on the rocks and the feeling of movement in the water and sky.
Step 7 – A Decision Point – Loose, Sketchy, and Emotional or More Detail?
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 some whitecaps into 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 refining the rocks and water.
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. Swirling sand, reflected colors, and density of the waves contribute to the variety of values and colors.
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, but it’s also much more fun to look at.
Step 8 – Paint Shadow and Light for Structure in the Rocks
Step 8 was painting the shadow and light shapes of the rocks in a way that would bring out their 3-dimensional character and add visual cues to lead the viewer through the painting. How do we take a flat object and give it 3-dimensions? With light and shadow!
It took me a while to notice 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 begin 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.
Step 9 – Removing a Purple Mistake and Developing the Water
As an experiment I added bright bluish-purple to the water – epic fail! The lavender color was so light that it took away from the moody, emotional feeling in the painting.
So, I wiped it off with a paper towel (the dried paint layer underneath was convenient). Then I mixed Phthalo Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Transparent Oxide Yellow with just a touch of white to get back to a deeper darker blue color for the water.
Darker blue paint greyed down with touches of yellows and oranges mixed in, works much better for the underlying water tones than that bright bluish lavender in the previous step. The darker blue paint mixture will be a great contrast for the lighter ocean waves. The middle-value blue feels much more natural than the pastel purple I experimented with.
One reason the dark duller blue works so much better is that it contains some of the same colors we see in the rocky shoreline. That helps create harmony in the painting since light and color from the rocks will – to an extent – reflect down into the surrounding water.
Keeping the color in the darker middle values also gives me a strong backdrop for future waves and highlights.
The overly-vivid purple water reduced the impact of and competed with the brilliant yellows and oranges in the rocks.
Step 10 – What to do About the Dark Rock?
One of the confusing elements in the reference photo is the dark rock jutting out into the water on the lower right. The sun must be low on the horizon to cast that long of a shadow. To me, it looks unnatural and out of place in the photograph.
A second reference photo during the daylight hours – notice how bright the jutting rock is
You can see in this other photo of the same location that the rock isn’t naturally dark.
The swirling water between that large vertical rock on the left and the shadowed rock catches so much reflected light that it doesn’t look it’s in shadow. That is what makes the shadow on the rock look out of place.
That dark rock caused me a lot of exasperation. Should I cut it out entirely? What about making it brighter like all the other rocks.
I decided to go with it as-is. Keeping the darker contrasting object seemed like a good opportunity to break up the bright line of yellow cliffs.
Step 11 – Painting Waves and Emotion in the Water
Painting waves and whitecaps on the ocean water increased the contrast and the feeling of movement and energy in the painting. It also 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 paint a range of values within the structure of the waves and still have them stand out strongly? That is possible because of those darker values in the water. If I had continued with the bright purple water from the early experiment, the waves would struggle to stand out.
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 contain 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.
Step 12 – Using an Egbert Hog Bristle Brush to Scumble Cool Greens in the Distant Hills
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.
Step 13 – Painting Striations and Variety on the Rocks
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.
Step 14 – Painting the Stormy Sky
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 color similar to the lavender placed in spots throughout the rocky shoreline thinking it would 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 interest at the front of the scene.
Step 15 – Observing the Painting for a Few Days and Final Touches
The final step in this oil painting tutorial involved 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 felt too dark as they moved away from the viewer.
The middle ocean side of the painting needed some sprucing up. So, I placed more whitecapped waves splashing against the rocks in the water.
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.
Another post about painting the appearance of texture in rocks is Painting Rocks to Decode Values in Shadows.
Why This Painting was so Much Fun for Me
10 years of my childhood were spent in beautiful 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.
I hope the steps in this oil painting tutorial will help you paint a sunset coastal landscape. This was such 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?