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Painting Surf and Sea

Painting Surf and Sea

by Harry R. Ballinger

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An award-winning artist and teacher shows how to recapture the beauty and majesty of the sea in this simply written yet authoritative book. Seasoned artists and beginners alike will appreciate its profusely illustrated guidelines, which offer not only step-by-step instructions on depicting seascapes, but also many tips on picture-making in general.
Artist Harry R.


An award-winning artist and teacher shows how to recapture the beauty and majesty of the sea in this simply written yet authoritative book. Seasoned artists and beginners alike will appreciate its profusely illustrated guidelines, which offer not only step-by-step instructions on depicting seascapes, but also many tips on picture-making in general.
Artist Harry R. Ballinger shares insights from his decades of experience with marine painting, clearly explaining the principles on which the sea and surf operate. He combines the basics of composition and color mixing with easy methods for painting surf, sea, skies, sandy beaches, waves, and rocky shores. He also offers invaluable suggestions for choosing everything from the right brush and paint to the appropriate practice subjects. Twelve color and 85 black-and-white illustrations enhance the text.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Art Instruction
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Barnes & Noble
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By Harry Russell Ballinger

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13649-3


Painting Equipment

For the benefit of those who have had no previous experience with oil painting, I will list the equipment needed for out-of-door painting.

First you will need a sketchbox, either a size 12 x 16 inches or, if you want a more generous one, 16 x 20 inches. I think one which is smaller than 12 x 16 is too cramped for comfort unless one happens to be a midget or a miniature painter. The box can be made either of wood or aluminum. Personally I like a wooden box, but a great many painters prefer the aluminum type because of its light weight. A palette comes with the sketchbox, though some painters may prefer a paper palette with disposable sheets. If you have a wooden one, it is a good idea to rub a little linseed oil on the palette when new, to fill up the porousness of the wood and to give a smoother surface on which to mix your paints. When buying a sketchbox be sure that the dealer does not sell you a fitted box, as they generally contain a weird assortment of earth colors and exotic tints that haven't been in general use since the days of the Pharaohs (Fig. 1).

You will need a good solid sketching easel, either of wood or aluminum. The type of easel I prefer is the one that is manufactured by Edith Anderson Miller in Cincinnati, Ohio (formerly made by Oscar Anderson). It has a shelf-like arrangement on which to rest your sketchbox and palette below your canvas. Some of the aluminum easels have a similar arrangement for resting your palette and are equally good. If possible, get an easel with a place to rest your palette as it is extremely inconvenient to have to hold your palette in your left hand. It is better to have your left hand free to hold a paint rag and a few extra brushes (Fig. 2).

The Anderson-type easel has a shoulder strap for carrying it, which is a great help when you are climbing over the rocks with a paint box in one hand and a couple of canvases in the other.

If your easel hasn't a place for your palette, you can nail three stretcher sticks together into a triangle that will fit down over the easel and give you a platform for the palette (Fig. 3).

You will need at least six brushes, ranging from about a quarter-inch to an inch in width. I prefer bristle brushes rather than sable, as you are liable to get your picture too slick and polished-up with sable brushes. The brushes should be flat, with a square end, and can be either the type called brights, with a short bristle, or the ones with a slightly longer bristle called flats. I would not advise brushes with extremely long bristles, as they are difficult to manipulate (Fig. 4).

It is a good idea to get two brushes of approximately the same size, one for light colors and the other for dark. For your smaller sizes, Nos. 2 and 3; for the next size 4 and 5; and for the large size 6 or 7 or possibly 8. For very fine lines you might have a No. 1 or 2 brush, but you will find you can get a fairly fine line by using the edge of the brush and will seldom need a really small brush. It is a good plan to get used to using as large a brush as possible in your picture, as this will make it easier for you to cover the canvas with paint. It will also help you to keep your work broad and simple.

You will need an oil cup for holding your painting medium. It should be about two inches in diameter—a single cup is all you need.

You will also need a palette knife, which should be the trowel-like type with the knife surface a little below the handle. This is somewhat easier to use than the straight type, and you get less paint on your hands in using it.

The list of colors that is used in what has flatteringly been called the Ballinger palette is a simple one.

It consists of ultramarine blue and cerulean blue; zinc white; cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, cadmium red deep, and alizarin crimson. There are no earth colors, greens or black.

These are the colors that you really need for most of your painting. In addition you can buy phthalo blue or viridian, but you will find that you rarely use them.

There are a few terms that artists use in describing the painting of a picture which may be a little confusing to the beginner. Artists are constantly talking about warm and cool colors in their pictures. This means exactly what it says. By warm ones we mean red-yellow- orange; yellowish greens, reddish purples, and browns or grays in which the warm colors predominate. The cool colors are blue, blue-green, bluish purple, and the grays and dark colors in which cool colors predominate.

By values we mean the degree of light and dark of any particular part of a picture or color. It could also mean the degree of light or dark of one color compared with another.

Tone means about the same as value.

Key means the color values of the painting. A high-keyed painting would be a picture with light, bright colors; a low-keyed one would be a picture with dark, somber colors.

Medium is the liquid which you use to mix with your paint so that you can apply it to the canvas more readily. I use a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine—half—and—half. The oil should be a purified linseed oil, obtainable from an artists' materials store, but any clear, good gum turpentine sold by paint stores is adequate.

You will also need retouching varnish. This is a quick-drying varnish to bring a gloss to the parts of the picture that look dull and lifeless. It can be sprayed on by a fixative blower if the painting is wet, or applied with a clean soft brush if the paint is dry. You will need to use the retouching varnish only when the picture has dried out and you wish to continue painting on it.

The last item is something to paint on. Canvas mounted on a cardboard panel is good, as it is easy to transport. For any picture larger than 20 x 24 inches, a stretched canvas is better. Panels the size of your sketchbox are good because you can carry them in the lid of your box, which has slots made for that purpose.

If you are painting on stretched canvas, it is a good idea to carry two canvases of the same size with you so that you can put one in back of the other on your easel. This will prevent the sun from shining through the canvas on which you are painting.

For those who prefer to paint sitting down, any strong light folding stool will be satisfactory.


Analysis of Wave Action

The most important part of a marine painting is the water itself. Until you know just what changes a wave goes through when it breaks on shore, you can't even think about trying to paint a seascape.

In order to paint a surf scene convincingly, it is necessary to understand what is happening before your eyes. The surf moves so rapidly that it is hard to see the action unless you know exactly what to look for. Therefore, I will explain each step in the action of a wave from the time it approaches the shore until it spends its force against the shore and pours back out to sea as floating foam.

Waves move into shore in parallel lines from the open sea. They are evenly spaced, and crest as they get into shallow water at about the same spot each time (Fig. 5).

A cross section of a wave approaching the shore is a triangle with the steepest side toward shore. As a wave reaches shallow water, the front plane toward shore gets steeper and steeper until finally the top of the wave collapses forward, rolls over and down, hitting the front slope of the wave near the base with a mighty rebound. The weight of the water behind it forces the foam on toward shore in a series of bouncing masses.

When the top of the wave rolls forward and over, and breaks into foam, there is briefly visible a sheet of water back of the foam that is almost immediately blown apart by the imprisoned air under it. Because of the foam and air bubbles underneath, this sheet of water is often a lovely, pale jade-green in color.

When the sheet of water at the top of the cresting wave disappears, there is left a large mass of foam that comes cascading down the front of the wave in terraces. As the wave moves on toward shore, it gradually flattens out and leaves a twisted mass of foam trailing out behind it. The wave gets flatter as it moves toward shore, though there is still weight and thickness to the mass of foam as long as the forward movement continues. When the wave has traveled up and over the rocks as far as its momentum will carry it, the foam then levels off and pours back down to the level of the sea, directly in front of the rocks.

Sometimes the mass of water pouring off the rocks is so heavy that it gives the effect of a flattened-out wave heading back out to sea. When this backwash hits an advancing wave, you sometimes get quite an impressive splash. Personally, I think that it is confusing to play up the backwash too much in a picture. It rather detracts from the power that you get in your painting when you have all the waves moving in toward shore in the same general direction.

On a flat, sandy beach there is very little backwash noticeable. When the wave travels up the beach and reaches the end of its forward movement, it turns into floating foam and gradually moves out to sea again.

The drawings on page 15 show the action of a wave from the time it crests and moves into shore until it finally pours back out to sea again (Fig. 6).

A wave crests at its highest point when it gets into shallow water (Fig. 7). The foam spreads out toward each end of the wave. This action is especially easy to see when you watch surf on a sandy beach. There the waves, because of the uniform depth of the water, generally show a wide stretch of foam when cresting and the waves appear much longer from end to end than on a rocky shore with its varying depths of water.

When painting a breaking wave coming toward you, notice that the bottom edge of the foam tumbling down the face of the wave can be suggested by sweeping curves deeper at the middle and tapering out toward the ends of the wave (Fig. 8). A profile view of a breaking wave suggests a series of terraces from the top to the bottom in a convex contour rather than the concave shape that some painters imagine a cresting wave assumes (Fig. 9).

A wave doesn't really roll over completely when it crests; just the top portion rolls over and down (Fig. 10). The foam then goes bouncing along toward shore, pushed along by the volume of water behind it and getting flatter and more spread out as it goes along. I always paint these masses of foam with up and down strokes of my brush across the action of the foam itself. The floating foam should be painted with horizontal strokes in the direction in which the foam is moving. This will make it lie flat on the surface of the water (Fig. 11).

If you study the drawings on the opposite page, I think you can easily understand the system on which surf operates. There will be more about this in the chapters on Painting Surf on a Rocky Shore, and Painting Surf on a Sandy Beach.



Before starting a marine painting, I would like to explain a few fundamental ideas of composition that apply to all kinds of painting. I think the first in importance is the black- and-white pattern or design of the picture. I always try to think of every scene I paint as a big, simple arrangement in two tones of light and dark (Fig. 12). This is really the framework for your whole picture. I try to see every portion of the picture either as part of the dark or light pattern. I always try to tie my darks together by having one blend into another, to make a large irregular shape of dark rather than a number of isolated dark spots (Fig. 13A & B). The dark pattern, of course, makes the light one.

By thinking of your picture as a two-toned pattern of light and dark, you start with a simple, poster-like design (Fig. 14). Then, as you carry on the picture, you can modify some of the darks and lights; but be careful not to lose your original simple design of light and dark (Fig. 15).

In a seascape, it is easy to see a two-toned pattern of light and shade. Generally, the white foam of the cresting waves and floating foam are part of your light pattern; also the sky and sometimes sunlit rocks or sand. The darks are, of course, the dark sea water and rocks in shadow (Fig. 16A & B) —occasionally the sky, if you are doing a storm or moonlight effect (Fig. 17).

There are a number of types of composition which are used in the black-and-white pattern of most pictures. But before we discuss them, let me briefly explain what is meant by balance in a picture.

Most pictures are composed on the principle of the steelyard balance. If this term is confusing, think of the old idea of the seesaw (Fig. 18). An adult has to sit well in near the center to be balanced by a child out on one end of the seesaw. Applied to a picture, a large mass of either light or dark near the center of your picture can be balanced by a smaller spot out near the edge (Fig. 19).

A popular type of composition is a light picture with balanced spots of dark. A composition with a dark mass of rocks in the lower right foreground, balanced by rocks out on the middle of the left side, would be this type of picture. You could have a light sky, fairly light sea, and white sparkling foam, the rocks being your only real dark spots (Fig. 20).

Many marines are painted with the same composition in reverse. A dark picture with balanced light spots. A moonlight scene with a little light on the water and on some of the foreground foam, with everything else in the picture dark, would fit into this type of composition (Fig. 21).

A picture with a dark base and a light upper portion is effective; also the same in reverse—dark top, light lower portion (Fig. 22A & B).

A pyramid composition with the weight and interest building up the middle of the canvas is always strong and effective (Fig. 23). There is also the L-shaped composition which builds up one side of the picture (Fig. 24).

I often like to use the S-shaped composition in which the interest swings through the picture from top to bottom like the shape of the letter S. It is always effective (Fig. 25).

Sometimes the picture can be arranged in horizontal bands of light and dark (Fig. 26). Often a combination of several of these compositions can be used in the same picture (Figs. 27 & 28, and Fig. 11).

The difference between painting and drawing is that when you paint you work in masses of light and dark which are spots without much outline while a drawing is simply a matter of line and outline, with very few values in it (Fig. 29A & B).

If you are able to see a fine decorative arrangement of your light-and-dark pattern in the picture you wish to paint, you will automatically have a good picture. It will almost paint itself. But if the composition doesn't balance or work out with a decorative design, no matter how much you struggle with it, the picture will never be any good. In that case there is really nothing much left to do except shoot yourself or just give the whole thing up and start another picture somewhere else.

One way to learn composition is to try and figure out the composition used in some of the fine pictures that you like. By studying them you can see how the principles of balance and composition that I have just mentioned can be applied to your own picturemaking.


Excerpted from PAINTING SURF & SEA by Harry Russell Ballinger. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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