How to Paint Big Rolling Waves

Written by simone o'shea
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How to Paint Big Rolling Waves
Paint big rolling waves in bright blues and greens. (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

When painted masterfully, dramatic seascapes of rolling waves evoke the sensations of the pounding surf. The viewer can almost detect the smell of the salty air, the ocean spray's cooling mist and the loud, low booms of the powerful swells pounding on the sand. With observation, practice and a few tips, anyone interested in painting the moving sea can create striking pictures of big, rolling waves crashing to the shore.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

Things you need

  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • Gesso
  • Water
  • Gesso brush
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • Thin acrylic brush
  • Small, medium and large acrylic paint brushes
  • Acrylic fan brush
  • Acrylic paint set
  • Palette knife
  • Palette
  • Acrylic matt medium
  • Water-soluble acrylic varnish
  • Varnish brush

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  1. 1

    Sketch big, rolling waves from videos, photographs and nature to better understand their movement and structure. Each wave creates a crest and a trough above and below the still-water line, the level of the sea without waves.

  2. 2

    Prime the canvas. Mix gesso with water into a watery consistency. Apply a thin layer to the canvas with horizontal brushstrokes. Allow to dry, then sand smooth. Apply a second coat of vertical strokes over the first. Allow to dry, then sand. Apply one more horizontal and vertical layer.

  3. 3

    Sketch the composition onto the canvas with a thin brush and blue paint. Work from imagination, sketches or a photograph. Create a unified composition by drawing the big shapes first, then adding smaller details.

  4. 4

    Mix three shades of the colour of the water: dark, medium and light. Blend each shade with acrylic matt medium to extend to the working time of the paint. Paint the darkest wave areas with the dark shade, the medium-toned areas with a medium shade and the lightest areas with the light shade. Blend the three with a fan brush. Repeat the process to mix and paint the colours of the sky and sand.

  5. 5

    Mix white paint with blue paint and a small amount of orange paint for the foam. Paint the large clouds of foam at the bottom of the crashing waves, the linear trails of foam on the surface of the waves and the spidery foam that patterns the underside of the wave. Add white highlights where the sun hits the foam. Blend the foam at the base and crest of the waves with the fan brush to create the illusion of mist. Add more acrylic matt medium to the medium shade of paint used for the water. Glaze the translucent blend sparsely onto the wave foam to unify colour and add depth to the painting. Allow the finished painting of big, rolling waves to dry. Apply two thin coats of water-soluble varnish.

Tips and warnings

  • When mixing darker colours, do not use black paint -- mix in the complementary colour of the paint in question instead. The complementary colour of blue is orange; the complementary colour of green is red.

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