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Waves, darn things won’t stand still for us while we are painting. They vary in size and height, and color depending on where the sun is. At times we can see right through them, and the foam kicks up in many patterns as they break. Still, there are a few tricks and main attributes to make them easier to paint.

First, take photos of a wave to study as it goes through its cycle. Video is even better as you can stop it or slow it down while viewing to really see what it is doing.

Here is one such photo I took as an example. Some key elements are:

Waves break in sections. The left side shows the wave about to break, and the rest shows it already breaking. Most waves will be dark underneath the wave, and underneath the break. A top edge, if the sun is shining, will be transparent as there is “thinner” water at the top edge. The splashed foam will have shadows on it as it is three dimensional. Note the darker and highlighted sections in the breaking wave sections. Use a lighter color of the water on the shadow portions, stroking the brush  upward or downward to draw the foam. I like to do the highlights with a touch of yellow in the white to make these parts stand out. 

Note the wave in the background here. It is darker than the surrounding water and a nice loaded brush with a darker water color twisted and turned as you paint across the canvas will convey this nicely. The nice foam patches in front of this wave can be painted with a thin loose brush stroke, drawing twisty lines to convey that effect. 

Here is another wave exhibiting similar features (and lots of figures for a bonus). Note parts of the wave are broken, and some are ready to break. The top edge of the slightly broken wave is slightly lighter while the rest and the area below the wave generally darker but note the lighter reflection at the edge. If you follow the basic pattern of a dark line, with whiter breaks, you are most of the way there. 



Here is a section of a painting where I viewed the wave straight on. It’s mainly a dark wavy line with white break points. Keep it all irregular shapes and sizes, like a real wave, and it will pass for a realistic wave.



Here are some waves in sequence. They get closer together as they recede in space and generally smaller. This was an earlier painting not quite as successful as more recent ones, but the basic concept, dark line of the water’s color, then white breaks, with the darkest water under the wave, still holds. For splashes on the rocks, just stroke the brush upwards where the wave hits the rocks. 

In a narrower part of beach, here at Magic Sands, the entire wave has broken but there still nice variations of shadows in the wave. Sometimes the next wave is nowhere to be seen. Sit and observe the waves where you are painting, and discover the pattern and type wave and break you are seeing. Doing a small sketch in 2-3 values of the wave you want before painting can also be helpful. Using a pause or freeze frame when watching the surf channel on TV also can help to see what big waves can do and what they look like. With a little wave study, you can become a master of the waves, even if you are like me and can’t imagine standing on a surf board. 

Here are a couple more wave references to use and study.  




Note there are three waves to be seen above, pretty close together. The closest one has broken, middle one is half breaking, and the third on is just a dark line in the distance. 

Below is another quick sketch of a couple of waves breaking at Pine Tree beach. A dark line with white foam breaking will always look like a wave from a distance. Texture in the foam also adds to the effect.  



Here’s a small painting where I redid the wave and added a few figures. Note the squiggly lines in the closest foam that give the idea of shallow moving foam. Keep experimenting and improvement comes quickly. I’m not a wave master yet but hope to be, and without falling off a surfboard.     

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