How to paint a wave

you can Learn how to paint a wave
with five easy steps for the beginner

  • Learn how to paint a wave with oil paints.
How to paint a wave in five easy steps with the painting artist Carol May

As an affiliate of Amazon I earn from purchases. There is no additional cost to you. Learn More


When you go to the ocean, there is nothing as beautiful and mesmerizing as a transparent wave.

  • So let's learn how to paint a wave.

First thing it's good to have some reference photos. Here are a couple of shots from Pixabay.

Transparent Wave Reference from PixabayTransparent Wave Reference
Wave Spilling Over photo from PixabayWave Spilling Over

painting seascapes takes practice

You can take any part of a reference photo and do a practice piece.

Painting seascapes takes practice Art by Carol MayA little practice painting on canvas board.


what makes a wave?

The Wave photo by Elias Sch. at PixabayThe Wave
  • Out in the ocean, energy movement under the surface of the water makes waves. The energy is the result of winds and currents. This energy under the water causes the waves to go up and down.
  • The top of the water stays basically in the same place. This is why a surfer can sit out on the ocean in the same place going up and down on the waves until he decides to catch a big one.
  • The front of the waves are concave. Their backs are rounded. The base of the waves is level. No matter how windy it is or how rough the sea is, the baseline of the waves remains level with the horizon.
  • When waves approach the shore, they appear to be growing. Actually they are the same size. They just rise up taller because the ocean bottom is closer to the surface. So the volume of water in a wave has less space.

As a wave builds higher, more water is sucked into the wave. The front of the wave becomes more concave and creates a trough in front of the wave. When a wave gets so large it can no longer support itself, it falls forward.

Waves make the awesome subject of seascape paintings. Understanding how waves form will help you learn how to paint a wave.

so let's paint a wave...


supplies for ocean painting

We will be doing this wave painting with oil paints. You could use much the same methods for acrylic.

paint colors



  • Blue - Ultramarine Blue or Thalo Blue
  • Green - Viridian Green or Thalo Green
  • Yellow - Cad. Yellow Light or Naples Yellow
  • Burnt Sienna
  • White - Titanium White
  • Optional - Alizarin Crimson

brushes

  • Hog hair bristle brushes are great for seascapes.

You may use synthetic brushes of your choice. However sable or other soft brushes normally are not suitable for seascapes.

canvas

Stretched canvas is the traditional choice for seascapes.

Canvas boards are good to practice how to paint a wave.





before you paint

  • Outline the areas of foam and the shape of the wave.
  • Also outline the eye of the wave and where the wave spills over.

Normally I outline a painting on the canvas with a pencil or thinned yellow paint.

This time I used Ultramarine Blue, so it would show up in the photograph.

Paint an outline of the wave on the canvas.Do an outline drawing on the canvas.

how to paint a wave

step 1 - paint the wave with the spill-over

  • Mix blue and green together and brush it onto the face of the wave.

Use scrubbing strokes to scrub the paint on.

Paint thinner and lighter toward the eye of the wave.

Don't paint the foam and the eye, yet.

  • Paint the reverse on the spill-over area.

The water gets thinner as it falls down the spill-over, so the paint will be lighter toward the bottom of the spill-over.

Paint the face of the wave.Paint the face of the wave.

  • Paint yellow starting at the top of the eye.

As you paint down the eye blend the yellow into the green.

Blend them together so there is no definite line between the two colors.

  • Paint yellow on the bottom part of the spill-over area.

Blend the yellow up into the green at the top of the spill-over.

It's easy Learning how to paint a wave!

Blend the colors together with a clean, dry brush.Blend the colors with a clean, dry brush.

  • The base of the wave is in shadow.

Mix a dark color with Burnt Sienna and blue.

More blue will make a very dark color. More Burnt Sienna will make the mixture warmer.

  • Paint the dark color into the base of the wave.

Blend the dark up into the green.

The base of the wave will always be horizontal.

Paint the dark color at the base of the wave.Paint the base of the wave.


step 2 - paint the foreground and background

  • Continue painting the same dark colors down below the base of the wave.

The paint will get lighter, as you come forward away from the shadow area.

Use a variation of the same colors for the background water behind the wave.

Apply the paint to the background with horizontal strokes to indicate distant swells.

You may choose to paint sky instead of water.

It's your choice.

Paint the area in front of the wave.Paint the area in front of the wave.


step 3 - Paint the shadowed foam and foam trails

  • Paint the shadow areas of the foam rolls with a bit of blue mixed with white.

You may grey the blue with a touch of Burnt Sienna. Or add a tiny bit of Alizarin Crimson for purple shadows. It's the artist's choice how to paint a wave.

Leave the top of the foam unpainted.

  • Use the shadow color to paint foam trails up the face of the wave.
  • Paint some choppy water in the foreground.
Paint the background and foam shadows.Paint the foam shadows and foam trails


step 4 - paint sunlight on the foam

Mix a little yellow and white for the sunlight areas of the foam.

  • Paint the top edge of the spill-over area.

Load your brush with the sunlight mixture. (Sorry I was trying to show you the loaded brush and the camera focused on the wave.)

  • Pull a few strokes of the warm white down over the spill-over area.

Touch the loaded brush to the top or the spill-over and pull it down very lightly.

Pull in the direction of the foam movement.

Paint the top of the spill-over with sunlight colorPaint foam on the top of the spill-over

  • Paint the top of the foam rolls with the sunlight color.
  • Use a clean, dry brush to make a few flicks up, as if the wind is catching the foam.
  • Softly blend the sunlight foam into the foam shadows. (Next photo)

When you are learning how to paint a wave, use your brush strokes to indicate water movement.

Ex. The foam trails go up the wave at an angle to show the movement of the wave.

Paint the sunlight on the top of the foam. See how easy it is to paint a wave.Paint the sunlit foam.


step 5 - detail and finish

  • Still using the shadow color, you may add more chop to the forward water.
  • If you wish, paint more foam trails up the face of the wave with the shadow color.

Let the foam trails softly blend into the wave colors.

Gently soften the edges of the foam rolls.

This is how to paint a wave that looks more natural.

Add more foam trails and choppy water.Add more foam trails and choppy water.

  • Use your sunlight color to highlight a few areas on the water in front of the wave.
  • Touch a few sun highlights on the background water.
  • Add a few dark shadow areas under the bottom edge of the foam curls.

Look over the painting and make any other adjustments you desire.

You are the artist, adjust whatever looks good to you. Listen to your inner voice.

My desire was to extend the spill-over, adjust some foam and a few colors.

Tutorial of five easy steps for painting a transparent wave - art by Carol MayFive easy steps to paint a transparent wave

that's it - how to paint a wave with 5 easy steps

  • Paint the wave and spill-over
  • Paint the foreground and background
  • Paint the shadow colored foams
  • Paint the sunlight foams
  • Detail and finish

practice and enjoy painting seascapes!

  1. Home
  2. >
  3. Paint Ocean
  4. >
  5. Paint a Wave

more pages for your enjoyment

  • Landscape Paintings for Sale

    You can bring peace and beauty into your home with original paintings and fine art reproductions of landscape paintings for sale by the artist Carol May.

  • How to Paint a Hummingbird - Oils

    Confidently learn how to paint a hummingbird with oil paints. Paint the beautiful iridescent colors of a male Broad-billed Hummingbird, a step-by-step tutorial.

  • How to Paint Ocean

    Learn how to paint ocean. Understand what makes waves. Follow simple steps to create your own seascape paintings. Then you can enjoy the beach at home anytime.

  • Oil Painting for Beginners

    Oil painting for beginners, start oil painting with an easy step-by-step tutorial. Paint a brilliant Oriole while you learn about oil paints and how to use them.

  • How to Oil Paint - Answers to FAQs

    Answers to frequent questions about how to oil paint. What you need to oil paint, how to use oils, best paints, brushes, colors, drying time, cleanup and more …