Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What Art Techniques can I use to Paint Underwater Scenes?

A fascinating subject matter for painting is undersea scenes such as the Great Barrier Reef or the deep. Having completed many oil paintings that feature marine images underwater, I have perfected great art techniques in oil paints to suggest this watery world. Here are some tips on how to paint water.

How to Paint Ocean Scenes

Painting Underwater Scenes
(Rachel Shirley)
I have completed dozens of paintings that feature coral reefs and the great deep for my children’s picture books, the Katie’s Magic Teapot series that tells the story of a young girl’s adventure travelling under the oceans in her magic teapot. But I wanted the effects to be realistic. Painting marine animals such as clownfish and dolphins required detailed effects in themselves, but how can an effective background create the impression that the scene is set underwater? To complete these scenes, I used the following art materials, beginning with the colors:

Ultramarine blue, pthalo blue, lemon yellow, permanent rose, burnt umber, viridian and titanium white. Additional blues such as cerulean and cobalt might come in useful. Soft, broad bristles that are slightly worn, sizes 6 – 12 will help create soft brushmarks. Prefer filbert to flat, to avoid perpendicular marks. Fine sables for working around the objects, such as fish and corals, will come in useful. Round sables, sizes 3 and 6 will suffice. Plenty of soft, clean rags will help with achieving soft, airbrushed effects with oils.

How to Paint the Sea Underwater

Painting underwater pictures does not always require lots of photographs, as the watery background will usually adhere to certain rules.

  • Deeper water is darker in color.
  • If the water is clear and there is sufficient light, the shallow water will appear as a luminescent, greenish-blue.
  • Deeper down, the water will appear a deeper blue and may exhibit violet or indigo.
  • Transitions between these colors and shades will be gradual, like the shifts of blue of a clear sky. Further objects will appear more obscured like on a misty day. Nearer objects will appear clearer. Strange patterns from rippled sunlight above will sometimes be seen on objects underwater.

How to Make Water look like Water

The following painting technique must be completed in one go, whilst the oil paint is workable, so allow plenty of time to complete before embarking. I would suggest around 1 to 2 hours or so for an art surface up to size 2 x 2.5 feet.


Begin by daubing a series of colors in horizontal bands over the painting surface, avoiding objects like creatures and rocks. If the background is large, wide bristles can be used. I will use fine sables for intricate outlines. The image above features the following color mixes:

From Katie's Magic Teapot (Rachel Shirley)

  1. The uppermost area comprises pthalo blue, white and a tiny bit of little lemon yellow (or viridian will do).
  2. This layer of water comprises pthalo blue, a little white and a little ultramarine.
  3. Here, I used ultramarine, white and a little permanent rose.
  4. For this darker area, I used ultramarine, permanent rose and less white.

For the darkest area, I used ultramarine and a little burnt umber. White may be added if wanting to achieve a midnight-blue. Very deep water will appear black. For this, I would use ultramarine, permanent rose and a little burnt umber rather than black paint.

Underwater Effects with Paint in Oils

With a soft bristle, I applied each color mixture in circular strokes, spreading the color thinly. I then adjusted the mixture to match the aforementioned as I worked my way further down the board. Don’t worry if there are increments of color shifts, these can be smoothed over as you work over the board a second time. With a clean bristle, blend each band of color into each other with circular strokes. Keep wiping excess paint from the brush and work downwards, aiming for regular tonal shifts. You can achieve a smooth finish over the painting with a soft linen cloth, scrunched in a small pad between thumb and finger. Dab carefully over the board. Again, wipe off any paint build-up. Don’t worry if patches remain, these can be worked over with a second coat of paint. This technique is known as ‘glazing.’

How to Paint Water in Oils

Once you have worked the paint as smoothly as possible, leave the paint dry for several days. Repeat the process described. Don’t worry if you can’t match the colors beneath accurately; just get a close approximation. This second layer of paint will work with the first to achieve a smoother, more opaque finish. A third coat can be applied if necessary.

What Color is Water?

Painting under water scenes that give the impression of a great marine aquarium can be tricky when trying to achieve a smooth finish to suggest watery depths. But simple art materials and techniques can be used. Notice how shallow water has a greenish tinge if the water itself is clear and sunlight permeates. Deeper water appears more violet, eventually darkening to black. Work carefully around the underwater objects (corals, fish and other objects) with a fine sable. Work darker as you work further down to suggest deeper water. Blend the bands of color together with a soft bristle. Rags will help create smooth effects.

Art Techniques for Water Painting

Repeat the process once the paint is dry for smooth effects. Take note of how the color of the water impacts upon the color of the objects within, in that they will exhibit a bluish tinge, like that on a misty day. Closer objects will appear clearer. Also observe strange rippling patterns as sun shines through the water onto the objects.

More Art Techniques for Oil Painting

Glazing technique in oils in detail
The nature of blue pigments for painting
My oil painting demonstrations site

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