'I’ve always been fascinated by the illusion of light in painting,' says Jenny Aitken.

'When it succeeds in convincing the eye, it seems like magic! But like any magic trick, there is always a method. The sea in any state can be overwhelming as a subject, as a constantly moving pattern of transparency, opacity and reflection. Fortunately there are some simple tips to make tackling the sparkling big blue a little less daunting.'

Polkerris, Cornwall, acrylic on canvas, (50x76cm)

Observation is key

Knowing your subject makes all the difference in achieving a real sense of light and depth. When you understand and recognise what you are looking at, it is easier to loosen up and bring movement and life to your work. There is no substitute for getting out there and staring. With the sea, you start to spot the repeating patterns in the movement. Quick outdoor sketches will bring studio work to life.

A painting lives or dies on its composition. Special effects are not enough to keep the eye intrigued. Whether you are working from life, photographs, or imagination, think of your scene as a treasure map with a path in, around, and back to where you started. Place the horizon line above or below the halfway point and keep important details away from the centre of the painting.

Colour and depth

My typical palette is ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, dioxazine purple, phthalo green, titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, alizarin crimson and burnt umber.

Remember that saturation of colour is relative to the depth within the painting. A simple rule is that the background will be cool greys and pastels, the foreground more vibrant with warmer colours. Try painting your subject in monotone first to get an idea of the darkest and lightest areas.

Breakthrough, Portscatho, acrylic on canvas, (40x50cm)

How to paint sparkles

Sparkles on the surface of the water are mirroring the sun, becoming the light source themselves, and the water around that reflection will be lightened accordingly. If you bear this in mind, you will avoid your sparkles looking like floating polystyrene.

To paint sparkles, try to avoid using unadulterated white; to work well with other colours white needs to be tinted, and the tint varied to convey depth. A tiny bit of ultramarine in the background sparkles makes them appear further away, use a red tint in the mid-ground and yellow in the foreground.

Think about what you are actually painting. That ‘white’ foam is an aerated, churning mass that takes on the colour of its surroundings. It is opaque and will not reflect like the smooth, unbroken surface. Compare the white of the highlights with that of the foam. Grey your foam accordingly with tints of the surrounding colour and the sparkles will sing out!

Porthcurnick Sparkle, acrylic on canvas, (40x50cm)

How to paint shadows

Shadows are usually lighter than you think and are an important supporting player in your lightshow. If they are too dark the water can start to look like a thicker substance. At the beginning of a painting, observe the tonal difference between your darkest and lightest shadows. I often end up reworking due to lazy initial observation.

Colours desaturate with distance. Think greys and pastels, no matter what you think you are seeing. Too much colour variation in the background will break the illusion of depth. Use artistic licence to exaggerate the vibrancy in the foreground and underplay colours in the background.

Mevagissey Harbour, acrylic on canvas board (50x76cm)

Top tips to consider:

  • Composition: Is there an eye path around the painting?
  • Depth: Work from the background to the foreground on each section: the shadows, mid-tones and then highlights
  • Movement: Work loosely with a large brush to avoid unnecessary detail
  • Brushwork: Stay in control by keeping a lot of paint on your palette and brush
  • Highlights: don’t use pure white

Demonstration: Porthpean Shore

Reference photo