How to Paint Breaking Waves


The sea is a perfect subject for painters of all levels and mediums. It also poses some real challenges. Follow an artist’s train of thought and approach to painting an acrylic seascape in this step-by-step painting demonstration.

This tutorial is a perfect example of working with shadows and highlights to express the power and motion of a breaking wave. It also demonstrates the effectiveness of using glazes to perfect the final painting.

Establishing the Painting’s Composition

Marion Boddy-Evans

This sea painting demo was done without any preliminary sketch of the composition on the canvas, but don’t assume that it went straight from blank canvas to what you see in the photo.

Before putting brush to canvas, a lot of visualizing and planning was needed:

  • Days were spent observing and photographing the waves on a small stretch of coast.
  • Preliminary paintings of sea studies were completed.
  • Decisions were needed on the size and shape of the canvas.

It was determined that a landscape format would be best for this subject because it fit my initial vision. We picked a canvas that was about a third as wide as it was tall (120×160 cm / 47×63 inches).

Once the canvas was selected, it was time to determine the position of the wave on the canvas. My intention was to paint a small section of a breaking wave, with the breaking crest and foam of the wave dominating the scene. It was then time to decide if the wave would be breaking to the left or to the right. Only then was brush put to canvas. 

Painting the Base

The first step is to establish the composition of the painting by putting down the basic light and dark shapes.

The sample painting is done in acrylics: titanium white and phthalo turquoise were all that was needed for the lights and darks. 

Notice how even at this early stage we’re not applying the paint haphazardly but in directions relevant to what we’re painting. This is because we know that we will be painting with glazes, which means that the lower layers in the painting will show through. It is called painting “in the direction of growth” and is done right from the start because we cannot predict how many layers of glaze will be used.

Once the basic composition was complete, we switched to Prussian blue to add darks to the background and foreground.

Adding Shadow to the Wave

Marion Boddy-Evans

Prussian blue is a dark blue when used directly from the tube and quite transparent when diluted with water or a glazing medium. It was used here to paint in shadows that occur in front of a wave (Photo 3). The intention is that the sea in front of the wave remains fairly flat but full of ripples and small bits of foam.

Next, a dark shadow at the base of the wave was added and pulled up and into the wave.

While leftover paint remained on the brush, a shadow was created underneath the wave break where I would be painting in the white foam. It’s important that this area of darker blue was thin and transparent (not a solid color) and that is easily done with a brush that has hardly any on paint on it.

Refining the Shadow on the Wave

Marion Boddy-Evans

The dark shadow at the base of the wave was then extended up the wave.

Notice how we also darkened the tones on top of the breaking crest, not just below it. Again, this is preparation for the white foam that will be added later and it will be more dynamic with these shadows underneath. 

A little white was added to the top of the wave as well. This reduced the shadow and created more contrast in that area. 

You will also notice that mid-tones are being added between the dark shadow at the base of the wave and the light tone at the top. This was done by adding cobalt teal to the front of the wave.

Adding White Foam to the Wave

Marion Boddy-Evans

Having established the fundamentals of the shadows on the wave, it is time to return to titanium white and paint the foam along the edge of the wave. We started with the top ridge, before moving on to the breaking wave.

The paint was applied by jerking the brush up and down (not pulling it along the canvas) using a worn filbert-shaped brush.

  • We think of this as the “Dibby-Dabby School of Painting” — dib it in some paint and dab it on the canvas.
  • The stiff bristles of this brush splay out a bit, producing a rough-edged paint mark. It’s very useful for painting the feeling of foam.

Overdoing the Sea Foam

Marion Boddy-Evans

Titanium white is an opaque color and it is very effective at covering up what’s underneath it when used thick. So if you’re using it as a glaze, you need to either be cautious or willing to fix things if they go wrong.

We did get a bit carried away while adding the seafoam in the foreground and decided that it needed some color worked back into it.

To give the effect of flying foam, we flicked some paint from the brush onto the canvas. But at least with this, we showed some restraint and didn’t overdo it.

If it’s not a technique you use regularly, it’s best to practice before doing it ‘for real’ on your painting. You don’t want to get big blobs of paint, just a delicate spray and there is a fine balance between the two.

Working and Reworking a Painting

Marion Boddy-Evans

You don’t need to plan a painting from start to finish before you pick up a brush. Some paintings flow from beginning to end and other paintings are a battle. Some paintings start off well then go downhill, and others start off badly and then soar. That’s just part of the challenge and enjoyment of the working method you can use to paint.

We know that if we did a detailed sketch or study beforehand and started with a detailed tonal underpainting, we would not work ourselves into situations where we’ve gone in a direction we hadn’t intended and have to work ourselves out. But not everyone likes doing that, and the price to be paid is that sometimes parts of a painting needs to be worked and reworked to get it right.

Which was the case with the foam foreground in this sea painting: we had multiple goes at it, each time not quite getting the right results. So we’ll reach again for the white, cobalt teal, or Prussian blue and work at it again. Persistence is what it’s about.

The Finished Wave Painting

Marion Boddy-Evans

As we reworked the foreground, it gradually became less foamy and more turbulent, with bigger ripples than we’d originally visualized. What does this matter? Nothing, really; it’s my painting and not representational of a particular, identifiable scene, so it can be whatever we decide.

Eventually, the foreground arrived at a stage we were content with and we decided to declare the painting finished.

The multiple glazes or layers of paint in the foreground, put down as we battled with it, don’t show up individually. Instead, they have created a wonderfully rich color that comes only from glazing.

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