What Colour is the Sea?

Uig to Stornoway Ferry Trip: Calm Sea

“Sea with waves does not have a universal colour, but he who sees it from dry land sees it dark in colour and it will be so much darker to the extent that it is closer to the horizon, [though] he will see there a certain brightness or lustre which moves slowly in the manner of white sheep in flocks

” … from the land [you] see the waves which reflect the darkness of the land, and from the high seas [you] see in the waves the blue air reflected in such waves.”

— Leonardo da Vinci, “Leonardo on Painting“, edited by Martin Kemp, Yale University Press, 2001, page 170

As frustrating an answer as it is, I think the true answer to the question “What Colour is the Sea?” always has to be “it depends”. There might be a single-word answer for what colour the sea is right now, from where you’re looking, but there is no single-word answer that is always right. (And certainly not living somewhere where the weather is as variable as Scotland.)

The colour of the sea depends on an assortment of elements, including the depth of the sea, how much wave action there is, how rocky or sandy the coast is, time of day it is, the weather. I’ve seen sea that’s dark near-black and sea that’s turquoise, sea that’s a mass of white waves and sea that’s white from reflected clouds. In summer, at sunset, I regularly see sea that’s purple and pink and yellow without a hint of blue or green. And in winter, at night, from my studio the sea a uniform blackness, with a handful of tiny lights from fishing boats and automated lighthouses.

Sea and sky

There’s no shortage of options available to a us when it comes to choosing colors for the sea. A colour chart from any paint manufacturer will provide you will the full range. But the reason I have so many ‘sea colours”‘ isn’t because a sea painting needs so many, rather it’s because I like colours and so have built up quite a collection of blues over the years, though I do have a core set that I use.

Sea Colours from Tsitsikamma

So although I searched through my paints for the various blues to paint the chart shown in the photo, I used only a few in a painting. Painting a colour chart makes it easy to compare the various colors and the opacity or transparency of each, and to remind you of options beyond favourites.

I hardly ever use ultramarine, a blue so many consider fundamental. If things aren’t going well, I’ll revert to my beloved blue, Prussian, and after that phthalo turquoise. But often blue isn’t the answer anyway, and then I’ll reach for colours to mix interesting greys, and orange, magenta, yellow, iridescent silver …

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