Techniques for Painting Seascapes


This well-illustrated guide covers all aspects of painting coastlines and seascapes in oils—a challenge to even the most accomplished artists. Written by a prominent member of Cornwall's St. Ives Society of Artists, it ranges from suggestions for preliminary methods and composition to a complete demonstration in five steps. 
Additional topics include differences in color of the sea and wave forms, cliffs and island rocks, open sea painting, beach scenes, clouds over ...

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This well-illustrated guide covers all aspects of painting coastlines and seascapes in oils—a challenge to even the most accomplished artists. Written by a prominent member of Cornwall's St. Ives Society of Artists, it ranges from suggestions for preliminary methods and composition to a complete demonstration in five steps. 
Additional topics include differences in color of the sea and wave forms, cliffs and island rocks, open sea painting, beach scenes, clouds over the sea, and creating moonlight effects. More than 70 illustrations, chosen for their technical and analytic value, complement the text.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486476995
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 12/22/2010
  • Series: Dover Art Instruction Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 1,350,084
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

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Techniques for Painting Seascapes

By Borlase Smart

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14010-0


The General Idea

IT is astonishing how very few real consistent sea painters there have been in the art history of our country. And this applies particularly to contemporary artists. When I say real sea painters, I allude to those who confine their works solely to sea and coast, without the introduction of incidents of shipping or of figure. The true seascape artists, past and present, can be almost reckoned on the fingers of one hand.

The late Henry Moore, R.A., and Julius Olsson, R.A., our contemporary painter, are outstanding masters of true sea moods; and their works, or at least good reproductions of them, should be studied whenever possible. I feel that pictures devoted to the incidents I have mentioned should be classed as the work of Marine Painters.

When a seascape picture calls for the addition of incident to make up for its apparent emptiness, it proves there has not been enough convincing sea interest in the work. It is lacking in observation, colour, form, composition, and the study of sea phenomena necessary to its completeness.

I have heard it remarked that seascapes are not good selling subjects; that people prefer landscapes or still-life subjects.

This would seem extraordinary, if true, in view of the fact that we are essentially a Maritime Nation.

That the sea has an enormous appeal is evident by the lure of the seaside health resorts of to-day, and this is inconsistent with the suggestion that such pictures are unpopular.

It is very evident that this subject has its fascination for the student, and even for many professional painters in other branches of Art who visit our coastal beauty spots.

It is particularly to the student lover of the sea and coast that I make this attempt to help them in their endeavour.

Sea painting is not an easy subject. The element is ever restless and changing, and commands quick observation. Direct painting is necessary.

A well-known artist, giving advice to a student, remarked: "Don't hesitate, but splash." The simile sounds humorous if I apply it to sea painting, but the criticism hits off the idea perfectly. The first two lines of a sea song, however, I think convey more of the general ideal to be aimed at by the student. It runs—

The sea, the sea, the open sea,
The blue, the fresh, the ever free.

This phrasing is applicable to a good sea picture, and suggests that the work should be colourful, pure in expressive painting, and the whole executed with a freedom of handling consistent with the subject.

The serious young artist has to guard against being satisfied with a "pretty pretty" type of work—the sort of picture that is "cooked up" eventually from memory with false tints. This may please the eye of the uninitiated, but it has no regard to truth of tone or form.

The sea and coast is at all times dignified and big in spaces. This should be studied and realized with the continued application of serious endeavour.


Realization of Form, and Preliminary Method Suggested

FIRST of all I want to analyse a wave form to give you some idea of its action.

The coloured diagram is designed to emphasize the successive stages of movement and what you should note.

No. 1 shows the well-known Greek wave pattern; the simplest and most expressive drawing of a breaking wave in the world.

Consider a wave moving towards the shore (No. 2). The weight behind it carries it forward until it reaches that point of shallow water where the influence of the beach causes the top to fall over (No. 3). It seems as if the weight of water in falling imprisons the air which instantly expands (No. 4), and breaks the wave top into foam. The movement continues forward, but a wake is left behind, partly caused by a blow back of the force (No. 5). It is this formation or wake that is so complete a contrast to the parallel lines of shore breakers. It adds movement to the picture. This will be seen in the next picture, which shows shallow waves breaking on a flat beach. The perspective of their wakes contributes a share in the forward movement of the breakers. The tumbling foam catches the full side light of the sun, while the wake which is of a lower level mirrors the sky tone. You will notice, when you check this for yourself on the spot, that this wake has a calming influence on its particular patch of water between the breakers. This provides a valuable contrast to the tumble of the foam.

Note also the rush back of a receding wave after it has rebounded from a rock and meets an oncoming one. When this happens, it is like two waves breaking in opposite directions. The rush back meets the oncoming breaker, the top of which is forced up in a mass of broken water and foam. The coloured illustration of this effect is descriptive of such an incident. In spite of the problem of depicting two such opposing forces, I have tried to retain the individuality of the movement of each mass, to give you some impression of this battle of the element.

Preliminary Method of Work. As a preliminary to any actual painting, I should advise you to go out of doors with several sheets of thick brown wrapping paper, or some dark toned Michalet paper, cut down to about 14 in. by 10 in. in size, pinned to a board. Take also a black crayon and a stick of white chalk. Instead of a pocket knife, use an old "Valet" safety razor blade. It provides a perfect cutting edge for chalk and crayon. One edge of this type of blade is blunted and thickened, and the blade can be used quite easily and safely and carried in an ordinary matchbox. The pocket knife, if not kept sharp, is apt to drag the crayon out of the wood, or sharpen the white chalk badly. It is just as well to have a responsive medium.

The general characteristics of wave form and the outline and shadows of rocks are drawn with the crayon. The white chalk (cut chisel-edged) is a quick and expressive medium for the touching in of the masses and tracery of foam pattern.

The illustration shows a study on brown paper of the forward movement of shallow waves breaking on a flat beach, sketched from the cliff edge. The viewpoint enabled me to note the whole formation. The creeping pattern of foam suggested the appearance of lace work. The small sketch in the right bottom corner is the first rough outline of the main pattern immediately above.

The next is a study of the end of the movement. There is just a suspicion of activity in the top right-hand one. The larger mass of foam is quietly swirling in a slight depression of the sand before dispersing. The pattern of lace work remains, but the force that projected the wave is exhausted. The two small notes at the bottom show how the main lines were blocked in first.

Try to get accustomed to drawing in black and white the general idea almost as fast as a wave moves or breaks. You will obtain more motion in your work. It will express something. No two waves break alike, but there is a similarity.

Try to grasp the idea with a continuous series of almost shorthand notes. Note the movement of one bit at a time and put it down on paper instantly before you become confused with the incidents of other forms moving in quick succession.

The third study, opposite, gives an impression of the added strength in the forward movement of foam from a heavier breaker. There is more volume because the flow-in is deeper, and has the initial force behind it. On a flat beach this tidal action would travel a considerable distance. Note the design of the pattern again with its definite lines of movement.



THE lines of design, or the main outlines, are very necessary to the completion of a good study. This is important in regard to composition. The lines of the sea and foam are examples of the finest elements of design, and a successful picture embraces balance, symmetry, growth, movement, massing, and spacing. Above all occurs a centre of interest or focus-point of attraction. In any composition this centre of interest should lie inside an ellipse or a circle, according to the shape of the paper, and later on, of the canvas. This space of interest can be kept roughly, say, to about three-quarters or over of the central part of the picture.

Your drawing, and eventually your painting, toward the edges should be broader in expression. This contributes to a feeling of bigger spacing, and makes your work appear larger in design. Experience will teach you that general all-over detail in a seascape, if carried to the edges of your drawings or paintings, is apt to make your work too photographic.

One of the amazing things in Nature is the way in which the lines of composition are provided, and this applies to sea, coast, and sky especially.

You will find lines of rock formation leading the eye from the foreground to the centre of your particular viewpoint. The waves, which always conform to the shape of an object, provide lines of form whose perspective contributes a similar effect.

To make my meaning clear, the picture opposite has been overdrawn with an ellipse enclosing the actual items of interest. The lines of composition of rock forms, especially where they join larger masses, fall into definite planes of recession, and lead the eye to the focusing point of the picture. Even the roughly suggested breakers contribute to this on the right. The white dotted lines passing through these main points are also drawn to prove this, and denote what should be looked for.

This grasp of composition will follow the intensive study in the preliminary black-and-white chalk stage, which accustoms the eye to form. A perfect seascape is so much dependent on perfect composition that I propose to emphasize this again and again in various demonstration pictures in later chapters.

It stands to reason that the student's approach to a seascape in oil is retarded by the selection, the mixing, and the painting-in of colour, to say nothing of the technique of laying on the paint. So do not rush into colour until you have mastered the forms first in black and white.

I want to be emphatic about the black-and-white preliminary work, as with later experience gained by this method you will be able to visualize the scene on your canvas when painting out of doors, and before you start work. Personally I do not even draw any preliminary shapes with charcoal on a canvas. I just sweep in the main lines of composition with a brush flowing with thin Ivory Black. I then paint in solidly. This applies not only to small sketches, but to canvases up to 50 in. by 40 in.

Experience will show you that effects by the sea change so rapidly, and that valuable time is lost by drawing in too much on the canvas. The eye becomes tired. You may change your mind during the painting, and alter something you have carefully drawn in. This leads to confusion and loss of time. More important still, your style becomes cramped as you follow shapes you have already drawn, instead of referring to nature and gaining more vitality by direct and spontaneous observation and application. Let your brush do all the drawing in the actual painting.

Watch the bigness of the sea and coast, and your work will respond in dignity and weight—the two chief symbols of the sea.


Difference in Colour of the Sea and in Wave Forms

A MOST interesting phenomenon is the difference between the colour of the sea on the South, the East, and the Atlantic Coasts. Students in touch with the North Sea and the English Channel may be naturally puzzled when looking at pictures painted on the Atlantic seaboard.

It is a question of lighting. The sun travelling from East to West and facing one, as it were, renders the colour of the sea more pearly on the East and the South sides; whereas on the Atlantic shores the sun is more or less behind the observer.

The sky is bluer opposite the sun, and the moving water, cutting up the reflected colour, refracts and intensifies it. The blue of a Summer sea and the shallow greens on the coasts of North Cornwall, for instance, are strongly suggestive of the waters of the Mediterranean.

There is, too, a difference in wave forms. The phrase "The Chops of the Channel" indicates under certain conditions the nature of the formation on the South Coast. The waves break quickly and in rapid succession. The same applies to those of the East Coast. On the Atlantic side, however, there is a heavy roll and a bigger space between the breakers, especially under the influence of a westerly or north-westerly wind. Then, of course, there are thousands of miles of unbroken ocean behind them.

Recently I watched heavy seas breaking on Handa Island off the Sutherland Coast of Scotland. The slowness and dignity of their advance, backed up by a ground swell, and the enormous depth of water at that spot made the wave forms almost an easy study. The effect was like that of a slow-motion cinematograph film.


Materials and Early Work

HAPPY is the young artist who can afford the best materials; and it is an appreciable factor that good brushes, good paints, and good canvas contribute their quota to success. In the very early stages of painting one can buy cheap second quality materials which answer their purpose very well. An artists' colourman should advise you on this point.

Brushes. I always use flat Herkomer Hog Hair brushes, as their short bristles contribute a lively crispness in touch. Never use sable hair brushes. They are not "alive" and responsive like the hog-hair. And above all do not use small brushes, unless you are painting on tiny panels.

For ordinary work out of doors, say 24 in. by 18 in., I work with ¾ in. to I in. wide brushes, and larger still in. proportion to larger work. This does not mean that I overload the canvas with paint; the big brush conveys a greater sense of dignity and breadth to the work, and also has more covering capacity. It is only natural that later on, when you enlarge up from a small sketch, your brushes should be proportionately larger; for how can you retain the breadth of the original if you do not enlarge your touches in proportion?

Always clean your brushes at the end of a day's work with soap and cold water. Never use turpentine or paraffin. These solvents drive the colour into the ferrules, discolour and rot the bristles, and rob the brush of its "life."

Do not carry too many brushes in your box. At the same time do not expect to convey pure colour throughout your work if you only use two or three. Keep at least two for rocks, two for sea, and two for sky.

Simplicity in Choice of Colours. The important question as to what colours should be used for seascape painting is a vital one.

Here is a short list of those I use invariably: NAPLES YELLOW, YELLOW OCHRE, RAW SIENNA, ROSE MADDER, VIRIDIAN, COBALT BLUE, and IVORY BLACK; also a very little CADMIUM for sunsets, and mixed with VIRIDIAN for the bright greens in cliff grass in direct sunlight. I have found, however, that I can dispense with even the CADMIUM, as NAPLES YELLOW is not so overpowering and is, consequently, more dignified in tone. Here, I want to give a note of warning. Do not mix too much Rose Madder in your shadow colours. It is a beautiful pigment used sparingly, but has a tendency to make greys purple. You will find that purple shadows reduce the quality of light in the sunny portions. I must, of course, add to the list the usual Flake White (Thin) for reducing the power of the colours when mixed with them. This thin Flake White in my case reduces the use of any oil medium for diluting the paint during work. It contrasts with the "dragging" or solid quality of the ordinary White usually sold, and is invaluable for sea-work where you have to sweep in your tones with a full brush.


Excerpted from Techniques for Painting Seascapes by Borlase Smart. Copyright © 2010 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I. The General Idea
II. Realization of Form, and Preliminary Method Suggested
III. Composition
IV. Difference in Colour of the Sea and in Wave Forms
V. Materials and Early Work
VI. Painting, Early Stage: the Technique of Expression in Paint
VII. Coastal Subjects Demonstrated in Detail
VIII. Lateral Lines in Composition
IX. A Close-Up of Cliffs
X. Cliffs on the South Coast
XI. Centralizing of Light and the Painting of Underwater Rocks
XII. The Pictorial Aspect of Island Rocks
XIII. Sea Painting
XIV. Problems Arising out of Lack of Supporting Interest
XV. Open Sea Painting
XVI. Rock Backgrounds to Foreground: Sea Interest
XVII. The Variety of Formation and Interest Necessary to a Picture
XVIII. Beach Scenes: Contrasts in Composition
XIX. Clouds Over the Sea
XX. Complete Demonstration in Five Stages
XXI. The Painting of Moonlight Effects
Some Notes

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