Painting Seascapes

One of the most challenging subjects to tackle “En Plein Air” is a seascape. The ocean is in constant motion. Wind is almost always a factor. Often fog will roll in and back out as you’re painting, sometimes completely obscuring your subject.

Although I live in Nebraska, in the middle of the USA, which is nowhere near an ocean, it is one of my favourite subjects to paint. I was born on the southeast coast of England and also lived for a time in California and Maine as a child, so my love of the ocean has been a lifelong affair. I began painting seascapes on location about 10 years ago. I use a 10 x 12 inch Pochade box (holds panels up to 20 inches wide) with a sturdy, heavy tripod, which helps withstand the wind.

When working in windy conditions, set the tripod legs as wide apart as possible, which adds to the stability. For additional weight and stability, I hang my backpack (full of my supplies) from my tripod with a bungee cord. Position your easel so the wind is hitting the side of it, rather than the front or back. This makes for less surface resistance and makes it less likely that your easel will blow over.

Layer your clothing. Temperatures along the coast can vary greatly within a very short period of time. The wind coming off the ocean can be pretty cold even in summer depending where you are. A warm coat, hat and gloves are helpful.

I have found the best way to start a seascape is to spend a lot of time (sometimes an hour or more) just studying the waves before ever putting the brush to the canvas. Waves only last a few seconds, so you must paint an “impression” of them rather than a “portrait”. I study the subtle shifts in colour from shore to horizon, the movement, the shadows, reflections, and then block them in very abstractly.

The ocean is in constant motion. Wind is almost always a factor.

Once the painting is blocked in, I continue to closely observe the scene, constantly comparing what I’m seeing to what I’ve painted and making adjustments as necessary.

It is indeed a challenge, but well worth the effort and, besides, spending the day painting, breathing in fresh salty sea air, serenaded by the soothing sound of the waves is pure heaven.

Images courtesy of Debra Joy Groesser.
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