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How to Paint Water, Waves, and the Ocean in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

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.

Get inspired! For more ocean inspiration check out these incredible Water References on Envato Market.

Tutorial Assets

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.

Step 1

Open a New Document in Photoshop at 1700 x 1700 pixels and 300 dpi.

Create a new document

Step 2

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.

How to set up painting references

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.

Ocean references

Step 3

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.

Brush settings

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.

Draw the horizon line

Step 4

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.

How to draw waves

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.

How to draw clouds

2. How to Paint the Base Colors

Step 1

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:

  • Foreground: #41896d
  • Middle ground: #254b5c
  • Background: #5d8191
Paint the base colors

Step 2

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.

Blend the sketch into the water and sky

3. How to Shade the Water and Waves

Step 1

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."

Layer organization with clipping masks

Step 2

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.

Shade the middle water

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.

Apply gradient to the foreground water

Step 3

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.

Apply light gradient to the sky

Step 4

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.

Paint highlights with a soft round brush

Step 5

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.

Deepen the foreground water

Step 6

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.

Paint the sunset clouds

4. How to Transition Past the Base Colors

Step 1

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.

Paint over the sketch

Step 2

Tweak the colors of the painting so that everything works harmoniously. First add a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer set to Kodak 5218 Kodak 2383.

add a color lookup adjustment layer

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
Add a levels adjustment layer

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.

Step 1

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.

Paint more texture and waves

Step 2

Then use a Charcoal Brush to paint light blue #9cdbe7 ocean spray onto the water.

Use a charcoal brush for the ocean spray

Step 3

Use a Round Brush with a slightly harder edge (30-60% Hardness) to carve out the wave shapes even more.

Carve out the main wave with the brush tool

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.

Continue blending the wave

Step 4

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.

Paint yellow onto the ocean spray

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.

Clean up the foreground water

Step 5

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.

  1. Draw circular shapes like infinity symbols for the foreground ripples.
  2. Then draw long curvy lines for the main wave to show the direction in which the wave is moving and breaking.
  3. Draw subtle wave shapes that overlap one another slightly as you move farther back into the distance.
  4. Finish with simple, squiggly horizontal lines for the waves near the horizon.
How to paint ocean waves and ripples

Step 6

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.

Clean up the water with a hard round brush

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.

Set a new layer to Overlay
Here's a before and after comparison of what this layer will look like prior to changing the blend mode.

6. How to Finish Painting the Ocean

Step 1

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.

Correct the wave painting

Step 2

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 shades of green and more details

Step 3

Add a New Curves Adjustment Layer. Raise the curves for the RGB and Blue Channels to make the entire scene bluer and brighter.

Add a curves adjustment layer

Step 4

Paint more waves and ripples.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
How to paint ocean waves and ripples

Step 5

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.

Color the clouds with color lookup

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.

Paint water ripples under the sun

Step 6

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
Add a new levels adjustment layer

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:

How to Paint Water Ocean and Waves Photoshop Tutorial by Melody Nieves
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