Painting Seascapes in Watercolor with Annie Strack

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By Annie Strack
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Painting Seascapes in Watercolor with Annie Strack

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

Painting realistic water can be challenging. Adding shadows and highlights, creating depth, marking distance, and breathing color into painted water can be difficult. In the following "Tugboat Painting Tutorial" guest-post by Annie Strack, you will learn how to make your seascapes come alive. Annie Strack is an expert watercolor painter, a contributing editor for Professional Artist magazine, and a phenomenal teacher. Read more about her work after the tutorial below. Enjoy!


>> Arches 14x20 CP Watercolor Block

>> #6 Squirrel Mop Brush

>> Kolinsky Round Brushes, sizes 6 & 10

>> Winsor & Newton


>> Payne’s Grey

>> Indigo

>> Ultramarine blue

>> Cobalt

>> Viridian

>> Quinacridone Gold

>> Cadmium yellow

>> Cadmium Orange

>> Cadmium Red

>> Quinacridone Red

>> Burnt Sienna

>> Sepia 

Whenever I get to the beach or around a waterfront area, I get out my camera and shoot a ton of reference photos. Even if I see a subject that I currently don’t want to paint, I go ahead and photograph it and store the photos in my archives, knowing that someday I may want to use them. Such is the case with this tugboat, which I photographed at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River in Philadelphia a few years ago. 

(1.) I start by choosing a photograph with a good composition. In this case, the boat is only partially in the picture and the tires are the focal point. I drew directly onto my watercolor paper, paying extra attention to value shapes and color blocks more than outlines of objects. I then used masking fluid generously to preserve my lightest values. I use a tinted masking fluid because it’s easier to see what I’m doing as I’m applying it, and I apply it quite heavily because a thick layer is much easier to peel off than a thin layer. After the masking fluid dried, I started painting my lightest values in thin layers and washes of colors.

(2.) I used large natural hair brushes because they hold more fluid, which allows me to apply the paint with larger brushstrokes that appear more spontaneous and confident. Smaller synthetic brushes have to be reloaded more often, and that results in a choppy staccato look that I try to avoid. I also worked wet-into-wet as I applied color, so that the color transitions would stay smooth with no hard edges between brush strokes.

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

(3.) As I paint, I use a paper towel to blot and lift highlights in the wet paint, such as on the left side of the bunting and the front of the boat where the sun is hitting it. After the initial layer is painted using a combination of Cadmium red and orange, I then used cooler Quinacridone red and darkened it with Indigo and Paynes Grey to paint the areas in the shadows.

(4.) The windows on the boat are dark, but not completely black. In fact, I never paint anything truly black and prefer to layer and mix multiple colors on my paper to achieve a dark color that still has some variation in it. Here I layered blues and greys on top of the red, to get the effect that some light falls on the windows and they are not just black holes in the boat.

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

(5.) Painting the area of the tires was the most complicated part of the painting. Although this is the focal area, I wanted the brushwork to appear loose and spontaneous. To keep from getting bogged down with complex details, I started by using my large squirrel mop brush to layer the lightest values of Paynes grey. The squirrel mop is extremely soft, and by using it with a light touch, I can layer large areas of color while letting the texture of the paper come through to leave highlights. After the first layer of color has dried, I switched back to my #10 round brush and worked wet-into-wet to block in the basic shapes.

(6.) The tires require several layers to achieve just the right values, and I don’t want to limit myself to just shades of grey and blue. I used a little of my red colors on the tires to create more visual interest and warmth, and break up the monotony of grey. Rather than mask out the light values on the tires, I negative paint around them. As I work, I drag the dark colors down into the area of water below the tires to create the shadows.

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

(7.) Switching to a smaller #6 round brush, I started painting the details of the tires and the boat’s hull. In my reference photo, the tires are in an area of dark shadows so I can only see a small section of the tread, but I don’t want to have quite such a large area of vague darkness in my focal point so I’m painting more light on the tires and painting some extra details. I’m not being too precise on the tires, however, as I want them to look really worn and ragged.

(8.) In my reference photo, the shadows in the water appear quite black and seem to merge into right into the tires. I’d rather have a good painting than an accurate painting, so I used lots of color to create a vibrant deep value without black. I used all the colors that I previously used in the painting up until this point, and added a few more just for fun.

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

(9.) Here I added more dark values to the tires and hull using Paynes grey and indigo, and they really begin to take shape. I decided to break up the shadows with a bit of bright color and used a few strokes of cobalt to liven it up. I keep my brush strokes horizontal in the water area to give the impression of water movement. 

(10.) More dark colors were added to the shadow area, and the area was enlarged. This shadow is now better matched to the boat and it “grounded” the boat better in the water. I refined some of the details on the deck of the boat and on the side of the cabin by painting small shadows to define a few small details that weren’t visible until the shadows were added. I also started painting the shoreline in the background, which is quite distant and vague so it didn’t take long at all. I negative painted around a few pale rectangles to look like buildings, and painted the rest of the background wet-into-wet in shades of grayed down greens so it would all blur together. At this point, I suddenly wasn’t happy with the solid blue of the water so I glazed a little Quinacridone red over some of it, just to change it up.

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

(11.) Finally, I removed the masking fluid and painted in the light values that I saved for last. I used Quin gold and cad yellow for the lightbulbs, tire chains, and post caps. Railings and window trims are white, but I still had to shade the items, add shadows, and perfect a few shapes. I also brightened the blue in the foreground shadow with a bit more cobalt, which is a bit more opaque than other colors so it covers well and stays bright and true when layered on top.

(12.) And here’s the finished painting. I added a few final details like the wire cages around the lights, the shadows that define the trim around the windows and doors, the rust and shadows of the tire chains, and a wee bit more shading around the bunting. I also really liked how the touch of red on the tires worked out, so I added a bit of yellow to go with it, and I added some more orange to the water to contrast with the blue and brighten it up. I asked my Facebook friends to help me come up with a title, and they chose “A Tug at my Heart.” It works well, don’t you think?

Annie Strack - Tugboat tutorial

Annie Strack is a Signature Member of several artist societies and an Official Authorized Artist for the US Coast Guard. She has received hundreds of awards and her work hangs in over 1,000 collections worldwide including USCG, Navy, Pentagon, Senate, VA, and many more. She teaches painting at Artists’ Network University and for other organizations in workshops and classes around the world, and she’s a contributing editor for Professional Artist magazine. Her show “Painting Seascapes in Watercolor” is available on DVD and also broadcast on television stations worldwide. To see more of Annie’s work visit her website or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linked In, Pinterest, You Tube, Blogger, and g+.  


September 2, 2016
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