Master the art of painting water in Adobe Photoshop! In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to paint beautiful ocean waves using a few stock photos for reference. Learn how to set up your document with the initial sketch before tackling the actual ocean painting.
How to Paint Water, Waves, and the Ocean in Adobe Photoshop
The following assets were used in the production of this tutorial:
1. How to Sketch the Ocean Waves and Water
Before we paint the ocean, we’ll need a basic sketch. Please note that a graphics tablet is essential to complete this tutorial.
Open a New Document in Photoshop at 1700 x 1700 pixels and 300 dpi.
Now set up your references. A great way to keep references nearby is to set them on a separate document apart from your painting. So open your references in Photoshop and place both documents side by side like this.
Here I’ll be using these water references to help me understand the real movement of water as well as any details I’ll need to capture it completely.
Let’s draw the water! Select the Brush Tool (B) and use a Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush with 100% Flow and Opacity. Make sure the Pen Pressure for Opacity option is also checked.
Start with the horizon line. Hold Shift to draw a straight gray line across the middle of the canvas on a New Layer. Then draw a second line below it that is slightly angled in the direction you would like the wave to crash.
Lower the Opacity of the guidelines (highlighted in blue). Draw more details on a New Layer, starting with the foreground elements. Use these lines as guides to judge the depth of field for the foreground, middle, and background waves.
Focus first on the center wave since it will be the main star. Then use flatter, squiggly lines to show the waves moving backwards in the distance. The “cloudy” parts of empty space are where we will paint the ocean spray later on.
Don’t get too fussy with your sketch—just create natural brush strokes that are also a little wavy.
Now draw the clouds above the horizon line. Create large, cotton candy-like shapes that blend into each other. Just like before with the waves, use horizontal lines underneath the clouds to show where the clouds are falling back into space or just disappearing.
2. How to Paint the Base Colors
Working with colors can be hard. That’s why I like to separate my base colors onto their own New Layers for more control. Create a New Layer for the background sky, middle ground water, and foreground waves.
Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to make a selection around each area before Filling them with color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G). Here are the colors I’ll be using:
- Middle ground:
Get rid of the harshness of the gray sketch by blending it in. To do this, set the Layer Blend Mode of the sketch to Hard Light.
3. How to Shade the Water and Waves
Add three more New Layers. Right-click each layer to set them as a Clipping Mask to each color.
Feel free to label these layers however you’d like—here I just labeled them “shading.”
Now grab the Gradient Tool (G). Select the Shading layer for the middle ground water and create a dark blue
#0c3649 to transparent Linear Gradient. It’s important that the water is darker when it’s closest to the horizon line so that it appears as though it’s further away.
Do the same for the foreground water. This time, use a slightly different blue color
#184b5a to apply a Linear Gradient that fades out as it moves upwards and to the left.
You’ll also need to apply a light blue
#7ba4b3 Linear Gradient to the top of the sky. Make sure the blue appears lighter at the top of the cloud forms.
Select the Brush Tool (B) and use a Soft Round Brush with 0% Hardness to add more color to the canvas. As long as the Pen Pressure for Opacity option is still checked, your graphics tablet will control the amount of paint that’s applied.
Paint highlights for the ocean, as well as soft clouds in the sky.
This painting took over 100 layers to complete, so I won’t list each layer, but for now, just make sure that the initial layers are set as Clipping Masks to the respective area that you’re working on.
Deepen the foreground water by setting a New Layer to Multiply and using a light blue color to tint the water. Try to make the colors transition well as they move further into the distance.
Before we move on, let’s tackle the sky again. Use a Soft Round Brush to paint more clouds with a slightly yellow tint
#b5ccc8. Then Fill a New Layer above the clouds with an orange Linear Gradient that fades as it moves upward.
4. How to Transition Past the Base Colors
Once the initial shading is done, you can now push the realism of your painting. Do this by painting on New Layers above the Sketch layer until there’s almost no more sketch in sight. You can keep a hint of the sketch underneath since it’ll help us build the waves later on.
Tweak the colors of the painting so that everything works harmoniously. First add a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer set to Kodak 5218 Kodak 2383.
Then add a Levels Adjustment Layer to boost the overall intensity. Alter the settings under the RGB Channel to the following numbers:
- 0, 0.86, 206
5. How to Paint Realistic Waves
Try to perfect the color scheme before moving on. This will help you avoid any trouble further down the line.
An essential part of any realistic painting is texture. Nothing in nature is completely smooth, so you definitely want to add texture to this painting. Using the first brush from this lesson, start painting more waves onto the water.
Guide the waves with a few directional strokes based on your references.
Then use a Charcoal Brush to paint light blue
#9cdbe7 ocean spray onto the water.
Use a Round Brush with a slightly harder edge (30-60% Hardness) to carve out the wave shapes even more.
Keep your water references close by to help you figure out this step. You should now be able to tell that the main wave is crashing only in the middle.
This scene features a beautiful sunset sky, so it’s important to make sure that the water reflects this lighting scheme. Start to incorporate more yellow paint into the mix by painting yellow
#dadfc6 highlights onto the ocean spray with a Charcoal Brush.
Also take this moment to clean up the foreground water with some blending. We’ll need to make sure it’s relatively smooth before creating water ripples.
Stuck on this part? Learn more about blending from my beginner series: Digital Painting for Beginners.
Now for the ripples. Choose a blue color
#275866 that is much lighter than the water so that it contrasts greatly against it. Begin drawing ripples on the water. Here’s a small breakdown of the types of wave shapes I created for this step.
- Draw circular shapes like infinity symbols for the foreground ripples.
- Then draw long curvy lines for the main wave to show the direction in which the wave is moving and breaking.
- Draw subtle wave shapes that overlap one another slightly as you move farther back into the distance.
- Finish with simple, squiggly horizontal lines for the waves near the horizon.
This next stage requires an exquisite eye for detail. Commit to cleaning up your painting by using a Hard Round Brush to paint more ocean spray onto the water. Add tiny dots to show that the water is glistening like glitter.
Set a New Layer to Overlay. Pump up the drama by using a Soft Round Brush to paint light yellow for the highlights and black for the shadow. This layer will help make those colors pop and give more depth to the water.
6. How to Finish Painting the Ocean
Merge all the layers together. I was unhappy with the current texture of the foreground wave, so I decided to smooth things out a bit. To do this, I used a Soft Round Brush with 0% Hardness to paint softer blue hues on the inner parts of the wave.
Trial and error is a huge part of any painting process, so feel free to make constant tweaks until you’re happy with the result.
Incorporate shades of green into the water for more depth. Switch back over to a Hard Round Brush to make sure that all the edges for each wave are more crisp.
Add a New Curves Adjustment Layer. Raise the curves for the RGB and Blue Channels to make the entire scene bluer and brighter.
Paint more waves and ripples.
- Follow the natural direction of the center wave so that you paint the others accordingly. Then bring the white ocean spray back into the curve of the crashing wave for more realism.
- Notice how the waves go from curvy peaks to almost completely straight, horizontal lines. This is essential for achieving a natural sense of depth of field.
Continue shaping the clouds as well. Make a selection around the sky right above the horizon line with the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M), and hit Control-J to Duplicate the layer.
Now you can apply a quick Color Lookup Adjustment Layer to the clouds with the setting: FallColors.look. Right-click to set this layer as a Clipping Mask to the clouds.
Now we have a beautiful sunset effect.
Whatever changes you make in the sky should be reflected in the water below. So don’t forget to zoom in and paint light yellow water ripples underneath the sun in the upper left corner.
Finish this painting with one last color adjustment! Add a New Levels Adjustment Layer to brighten up the scene. Select the RGB Channel and add the following settings:
- 5, 0.97, 242
That’s it! Check out the final result below!
Congratulations, You’ve Made It!
Achieving realism depends greatly on your willingness to push forward with the tiniest details. Subtle ripples, reflections, and changes in color or tone can transform your ocean paintings overnight!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial. Feel free to leave any comments, questions, or suggestions below.
If you’re still having problems, then check out these beginner tutorials to teach you how to paint more efficiently in Adobe Photoshop:
Design TheoryHow to Use Color to Set the Mood in Adobe PhotoshopMelody Nieves
Digital PaintingHow to Shade Easily With Layer Blend ModesMelody Nieves
BrushesDigital Painting Tips: How to Pick the Right BrushesMelody Nieves