Monday, October 19, 2009

My Wave, Baby

My apologies for taking so long to post. This has been an extremely busy time with three plein air shows in a little over a month, commissions to finish, and two good friends staying with us: artists Ken DeWaard and Jill Carver. So, I’ve had a few hats to wear!

With the close of the Laguna Invitational event yesterday mixed with spotty weather, I thought I’d discuss my approach to the beach and waves. Since I’m near the ocean, painting at the beach is a popular subject for me. But even as I’ve done my share, the ocean and its waves are endlessly challenging. The above scene, titled “Foam Rollers” was one of my Laguna entries, a 9x12 plein air painting on our first sunny afternoon late in the week. I usually prefer the afternoon here on the west coast as you get some nice shadows on the crashing waves. And with that, here’s my take on painting waves.

First up is composition: I like the juxtaposed angle of the incoming waves as opposed to the angle of the bluffs, if I have that scenery option. Both are little wedges that lead the eye into one another and that creates a natural “S” composition, which is the solution above. Next up is observation and study of the wave sets to choose what I want in my painting. There are several sea “events”: flat ocean, the start of a cresting wave, the wave just beginning to break, half breaking/cresting and a fully broken wave with a roll of whitewash. Once I’ve chosen (I mostly go with a mix of breaking and cresting) I sketch in my placement of the wave(s). Planning is critical for me to end up with good results. Next is understanding the shape. When you watch the ocean, it’s usually a jumbled mess. There are so many lights and shadows happening that it doesn’t seem to make sense. To simplify the process, I try to visualize the wave as a cylinder and how the angle of sunlight will create a highlight at the top, putting the whole side in shadow. I then observe a middle shadow color for the foam and paint it in. This unifies the shape without getting confused by the action of the surf. I’ll vary the blueish whites and purple notes to give it interest, then hit the top of the wave with a yellow/white highlight to create the top of the “cylinder”. Same goes for the cresting part, but I'll add a dash of lighter water color at the tip to give the appearance of light penetrating the wave. I also make sure the foam rushing in on the wet sand has a “thickness” to it by painting a shadow at the base. Adding touches of yellow and/or viridian in the whitewash helps keep the whites more interesting.

This approach to painting waves has given me better success in believability. Thinking of it as a basic shape keeps it simple, but I’ll spend a lot of time working on the little color and edge nuances to make it look and feel complex. Enjoy!


  1. Stunning. I don't know what else to say!

  2. Very nice. Must have been fun to paint.