After having lots of close encounters with sea turtles while snorkelling, I was inspired to capture that magical moment of connection with a creature of nature in an acrylic painting. Turtles are so graceful while swimming and have a sense of serenity about them. The artist in me is also fascinated by their intricate scale and shell patterns, with no two turtles being alike.

You will need


  • Canvas 16x20in. (40x51cm)


  • Liner No. 0
  • Filbert Nos. 2 & 4
  • Round No. 10
  • Flat No. 10


  • Willow charcoal
  • Gloss varnish
  • Artists’ acrylics
  • Titanium white
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber
  • Titanium white
  • Yellow ochre
  • Black
  • Cadmium

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Step 1

1. Use willow charcoal to draw the basic outline of the turtle and position the sea floor about one third from the bottom of the canvas. I like using willow charcoal to draw on canvas as its loose and powdery consistency allows me to dust off lines that need correcting easily.

2. Begin with pure ultramarine blue for the background ocean just above the sea floor. Working your way up the canvas, progressively add more titanium white to lighten the sea colour as it becomes closer to the surface.

3. Make sweeping horizontal brushstrokes with a large flat brush, blending the colours slightly and allowing some streakiness to indicate ocean currents. If you accidentally overpaint the edges of the turtle, just cover this with white paint when the blue is dry.

4. Indicate the sandy sea floor with short horizontal brushstrokes, layering a dark, medium and lighter blue made by adding a touch of yellow ochre to the background sea colours.

5. For the shafts of light streaming diagonally from the surface to the sea floor, dab the tiniest amount of titanium white onto the tip of a large Round brush and scrub straight diagonal lines above and below the turtle. Where the light hits the sea floor, scribble swirls of yellow ochre that have been toned down with sea floor colour.

Step 2

1. For the underlying skin of the flippers, neck and underbelly, block in a creamy colour made from titanium white, yellow ochre and burnt sienna.

2. For the creases and shadowed areas, darken this creamy skin colour with burnt umber.

3. As the blue of the sea floor is reflecting up onto the underside of the turtle, once the skin is dry, glaze ultramarine blue over the underside.

Step 3

Use varying concentrations of burnt sienna mixed with burnt umber for the scale patterns. This slight variation in dark brown creates more interest than painting every scale the same colour. I chose a filbert brush, as the curved tip is well suited to painting curved scale shapes. I used a small filbert for the tiny scales and a larger filbert for the larger scales. There is a lot of irregularity in the basic row pattern so it is important to avoid uniformity. If your scale patterns aren’t an exact match, it doesn’t matter as long as the essence of the pattern is retained. I began with the back flipper away from the focal point so I could practise my technique before painting the most prominent areas.

Step 4

1. In a similar way, paint scale patterns on the right front flipper and apply a blue glaze over the left front flipper.

2. Use burnt umber to scribble markings on the underside and left front flipper using a fine liner brush.

Step 5

1. Paint the head of the turtle with the same creamy colour as the rest of its skin then add the facial scale pattern. I used a fine liner brush for the delicate eye area.

2. Paint the almond shaped eye with black. Use the blue background colour to indicate the iris then a dot of titanium white will give the eye a sparkle.

3. Lighten the scale colours with titanium white to paint the mouth and more wrinkles around the neck and right shoulder.

4. When dry, glaze the underside of the neck and chin with blue.

Step 6

1. Use the same creamy skin colour to paint the lines on the shell. On the outer rim of the shell, blend cadmium orange into burnt sienna then burnt umber.

2. For the large shapes on the shell, blend the creamy skin colour into burnt sienna and burnt umber. Use curving brushstrokes to indicate the roundness of the shell.

3. When completely dry, give the painting two coats of gloss varnish to bring out the colours and protect the artwork.

The finished painting

Sea Turtle, acrylic on canvas, 16x20in. (40x51cm)

Elena Parashko

Elena is a professional artist, international art tutor and author of the empowering book, Survival Guide for Artists: How to Thrive in the Creative Arts, available via her website and Amazon. For more information about her work and online painting tutorials visit or email [email protected]. Her blog has a wealth of information for artists.

This demonstration is taken from the July 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

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