Underwater Painting Techniques

by Simone Wood
Paint the delicate light patterns under the water's surface.

Paint the delicate light patterns under the water's surface.

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Paintings that illustrate underwater scenes are beautiful, but it is often puzzling to figure out how artists achieved the aqueous effects. Once you master a few key techniques, you can use paint to portray underwater creatures and settings.

Washes with Watercolor

One common technique used in watercolor that is especially helpful for painting underwater scenes is the wash. With a "graded wash," you can make the background shift from dark to light, which is especially good for imitating the way that water grows lighter near the surface. For this, you will need watercolor paper, blue watercolor pigment (in the tube), two containers for the color, a jar of clean water and a large, flat watercolor brush. To create a dark blue wash (for the water), mix three parts ultramarine blue and one part water in a small plastic container. To create a lighter wash, mix three parts ultramarine blue and one part water in another container. Use a wide, flat brush to wet the area of the paper that you plan to use. Wet the paper only slightly, as you do not want to soak it or create bubbles on the page. Once the paper is wet, dip your brush in the dark blue wash you have mixed. Apply the wash to the wet page using even, horizontal lines of color that go all the way across the page. Once you have finished one line, apply another line below it, overlapping only as much as is necessary to avoid white space. After a couple of lines of the dark wash, dip your brush in the lighter wash and begin applying lines of this instead to create a gradual lightening effect. When you have completed your section, lay your paper flat so that the wash will not drip.

Monochrome Layers with Watercolor

Layering paint helps to create depth and shadow in underwater scenes, and watercolors work particularly well for this. After applying an initial light wash or color to your paper, mix a darker shade of the same color in a plastic palette or container. Making sure that the surface on which you will work is dry or almost dry, dip your brush in water and then touch it to a paper towel until it is only damp, not wet. Then dip the brush in the darker color. Apply this color to the paper on top of the lighter wash or layer in the places that you wish to darken. For example, you might want to make the lower part of the painting darker to mimic the way the water would get lighter near the surface.

Lightening with Oils and Acrylics

With nonwater-based paints such as acrylics or oils, you have greater flexibility with lightening areas and blending color and can achieve wonderful, underwater effects. To create the illusion of a lighter area in the water, such as one where light is filtering down, begin with a medium shade of blue as your background (this should cover the entire surface you are working on). Add a generous amount (1:2 ratio) of white to the existing medium blue color you have mixed on your palette. Apply this color using short, circular strokes to the specific area of your painting that you want to lighten. Clean you brush and dry it. Blend the area again using the clean, dry brush until it suffuses with the background water.

Darkening with Oils and Acrylics

Oils and acrylics can be blended together to create wonderful shadows as well as light areas when you are painting an underwater scene. To create the appearance of murky shadows in the background, for example, begin with a medium shade of blue applied on your whole canvas, paper or board. Then mix a darker color that is approximately three parts ultramarine blue (or other dark blue), one-half part black and one-half part dark green on your palette. Apply this color to the spot in wish you want to create shadow using small, circular strokes. Clean your brush and dry it. Blend this color into the background using repeated, short, circular strokes until the shadow appears to be gradual and realistic looking.

About the Author

Simone Wood began writing professionally in 2006. Her work has appeared on various websites. She has a Master of Arts in English from the Johns Hopkins University and is pursuing her Ph.D. in literature at the University of North Texas.

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