Bring your waves to life

Jenny Aitken explains how to make your waves so realistic that viewers will imagine they can hear the sound of them crashing to the shore

Painting movement, regardless of subject, comes with the confidence of knowledge. The ability to apply loose, throwaway strokes that add credibility and vivacity to a scene requires a balance of restraint and abandon. The more informed your wild, intuitive brushstrokes, the more you will express the sound, atmosphere and general sense of life in the air. Having photographed, sketched and stared at the sea as much as I can, I can say I’ve learned one thing – there is no substitute for time spent observing and experiencing it.

The rhythm of the sea can appear chaotic. Ever-changing it may be, but there are rules and repeating patterns. Try to discern exactly what you are looking at and how each area is lit. In clear waves, the crests will be backlit and semi-transparent, depending on water clarity. The troughs will be darker, showing through hints of the colours beneath. The calm sea in between will reflect the colours of the sky. In identifying the repeating tones of these areas, decoding that mass of movement gets easier and you can throw a bit more paint around! Every colour you see has a meaning, and understanding it gives you freedom.

Brushstroke direction in Tywyn, Anglesea

In Tywyn, Anglesea (above and below), once I’d reduced the chaos to a mental list of colours, it was all about the brushstrokes. It helped to think about the direction of the water flow. In the background, I used my favoured medium filbert in sweeping, horizontal strokes on the left, with short, downward strokes on the right to create distance. These became fatter, angled downstrokes for the crashing wave. With the same brush, the snaky strokes of the foreground swell angled round from the left into curves. These curving strokes on the right help create the illusion that the water is at your feet, drawing your eye into the painting. Finally, a loosely applied rigger, loaded with highlight white, gave the feel of splash and spray. I also used my thumb a little to mess the spray up a bit! The land, rocks and sea were the calm foil to my noisy water, providing the anchors for the eye to move around. It’s important for the composition to have flatter, soft areas, so that the eye is not overwhelmed with detail.

Brushwork tip

Crashing wave foam is not a thousand little individual dots, it’s a solid force of aerated water. To create that sense of the power and noise of it, use a big brush and don’t dab – smear and smooth that thick paint on without lifting your brush much from the canvas. It is one breaking mass, not a collection of spray. For the spray itself, a swift thumb gesture breaks it up beautifully, with a mess of random rigger marks to suggest the water flying about. Be flamboyant with it, but beware of uniform, round ‘dots’ as they will appear static and contrived.

Tywyn, Anglesea, acrylic on canvas, 15¾ x 19¾in (40 x 50cm).

My palette consisted of titanium white, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, dioxazine purple, phthalo green, sap green, lemon yellow and cadmium red. I find these colours will accomplish pretty much anything I attempt. I used a medium filbert for most of the painting, with a flat brush for the sky. Using a rigger for the splashy highlights is just fun – my favourite part of the painting process!


Brushes: a medium egbert or filbert, large flat, small rigger

Acrylic paints: cadmium red, lemon yellow, Prussian blue, phthalo blue, phthalo green, sap green, dioxazine purple, titanium white




I mixed phthalo blue, purple and phthalo green and loosely laid down the composition. I did this with the reference photograph upside down, which helps me see the actual size of the wave, as often the mind seems to interpret waves as being larger than they are


With a mix of phthalo green, blue and white, I put down the darker tones of the sea. I placed the foam on top of this layer later – though I left out spaces for the brightest areas


I added the warmer tones of the sand-filled foreground with a mix of cadmium red, sap green, yellow and white. There is also some sap green, mixed with the phthalo green and white, in the crashing foam of the wave. I used downward strokes for both these areas. The foam was Prussian blue, purple and white – a cold layer on the warmer greens


I brushed on the lighter foam, mixing white into the foreground colour to create the warm highlight. The cool highlights on the waves further back were a touch of the Prussian blue mix with white


I cut the phthalo/white mix of the sky into the horizon at this stage, to avoid the pasted-on effect sometimes caused by putting the sky in first. I made sure there wasn’t an edge or gap between the sky and the sea. The merged paint created a slight blur that helped the sense of distance. I treated the foreground sand, a mix of sap green, yellow, red and white, in the same way, painting into the wavelet. The brushstrokes in the sand curve towards the viewer, pulling in the eye


Wave Sketch, acrylic, 8 x 10in (20.5 x 25.5cm).

Before the final flourish, when I go a bit mad with the rigger and lots of tinted white highlights, I smeared some warm sap green and white on the top of the breaker with my thumb. I used the rigger to brush in some cool Prussian blue and white licks of foam on the unbroken face of the wave, also adding some similar shadow strokes in Prussian blue, red and sap green to the foreground wavelet. Think exuberance and go for it!

Follow Jenny's tips for painting sparkling water by clicking here.

This demonstration is taken from the June 2019 issue of The Artist

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