Step-by-Step Painting Demo: Big Wave

I did this painting of the “big wave” that is this month’s painting project (instructions here) not long after I took the photo, and wrote up notes to go with the photos, over a dozen years ago now. The painting is still on my wall, and Prussian blue is still my favourite blue. The way I approach a painting is pretty much the same, i.e. don’t overplan but be prepared to rework, but my favourite brush shape is now a flat rather than a filbert.

Before I put brush to canvas, I had been doing a lot of visualizing and planning in my head, following days spent observing and photographing the waves on a small stretch of coast at Storm’s River in South Africa, and painting some sea studies.

Establishing the Painting’s Composition

The first step, to establish the composition of the painting by putting down the basic shapes, lights and darks, was done using titanium white and phtalo turquoise only. (I was using acrylics.) Notice how even at this early stage I’m not applying the paint haphazardly, but in directions relevant to what I’m painting. I’m doing this because I know I’m going to be painting with glazes, which means that lower layers in the painting will show through. While I don’t know exactly how many layers or glazes I’ll be using, by painting “in the direction of growth” right from the start, I don’t have to worry about it. Once I had the basic composition sorted, I switched to Prussian blue to add darks in the background, and then foreground (Photo 2).

Adding Shadow to the Wave

Taking Prussian blue (which is a dark blue when used as squeezed from a paint tube and quite transparent when diluted with water or glazing medium) I painted in shadows that occur in front of a wave (Photo 3). The sea in front of the wave was to be fairly flat, but full of ripples and small bits of foam.

Next I painted a dark shadow at the base of the wave, pulling it up into the wave a little (Photo 4). I then used leftover paint on my brush to create shadows underneath where I would be painting the white foam created as the wave broke. The reason for using a brush with hardly any on paint on it was that this shadow wants to be thin and transparent, not solid colour.

Refining the Shadow on the Wave

I extended the dark shadow at the base of the wave quite significantly (compare Photo 5 with Photo 4), up the wave. I also darkened the tones on the top of the breaking crest of the wave, not just below it. This is so that when I paint the white foam later, there would be some shadow below it. Then I added some white to the top of the wave, reducing the shadow (Photo 6). Next I started to create a mid-tone between the dark shadow at the base of the wave and the light tone at the top by adding some cobalt teal to the front of the wave.

Adding White Foam to the Wave

Having established the fundamentals of the shadows on the wave, I now returned to titanium white to paint the foam on the edge of the wave. I started with the top ridge (Photo 7), before moving onto 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. The stiff bristles splay out a bit, producing a rough-edged paint mark, so it’s very useful for painting a feeling of foam.

Adding Floating Foam in the Foreground

Having got the wave painted to my satisfaction, I then started adding some floating foam to the foreground. At first this looks rather like bits of spaghetti (Photo 9) splattered on the painting. Once that was painted, I followed it with some thicker foam (Photo 10). But I was working on the floating foam, I decided the right-hand edge of the breaking wave was too uniform, and added some more foam to it.

Overdoing the Sea Foam

Titanium white is an opaque colour, covering up what’s underneath it very effectively when used thickly. So if you’re thinning it to use as a glaze, you need to either be cautious or willing to fix things if they go wrong. I got a bit carried away with adding the sea foam in the foreground (Photo 11), so now would have to work some colour back into it (Photo 12).

I also flicked some paint off my brush onto the canvas to create the effect of flying foam. But at least with this I showed some restraint, and didn’t overdo it! (If it’s not a technique you use regularly, I recommend practicing it before doing it ‘for real’ on your painting as you don’t want to get big blobs of paint, just a delicate spray.)

Working on the Foreground

I added some cobalt teal to the foreground, left it to dry, then painted over with some thin Prussian blue. As this is a paint colour that’s quite transparent when thin, it’s a good glazing colour. You can see (Photo 14) how it knocks back the excess foam I’d painted in the foreground without hiding it completely.

Working and Reworking

I don’t plan a painting from start to finish before I pick up my 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 I use to paint.

I know that if I did a detailed sketch or study beforehand, and started with a detailed tonal underpainting, then I’d not work myself into situations where I’ve gone in a direction I hadn’t intended and have to work myself out. But I don’t like doing that, and the price to be paid is that sometimes parts of a painting need to be worked and reworked to get them right.

Which was the case with the foam foreground in this sea painting. I had multiple goes at it, each time not quite getting to where I wanted to be. So I’d reach again for the white, cobalt teal, or Prussian blue and work at it again. Persistence is crucial.

The Finished Wave Painting

As I reworked the foreground, it gradually became less foamy and more turbulent, with bigger ripples (Photo 17) than I’d originally visualized. What does this matter? Nothing, really; it’s my painting and I can let it be whatever I decide. Eventually I got the foreground to a stage I was content with, and decided to declare the painting finished (Photo 18). The multiple glazes or layers of paint in the foreground, put down as I battled with it, don’t show up individually, but they have created a wonderfully rich colour that comes only from glazing.

This painting still makes me smile and brings me joy; well worth the time I invested in it.

120.x160cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2007

2 Replies to “Step-by-Step Painting Demo: Big Wave”

  1. Really shows a lot of energy and motion. Love the blues… Thank you for sharing your step by step process… 🙂

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