I try to keep my palette to a minimum, and that is especially important when traveling. Since we spend a lot of time at the seashore, I've recently adopted a 5-color palette that I think works well for painting the sea and coastline.
Below are the 5 watercolors that are quickly becoming my seaside staples. All except for the red are taken directly from my standard 14-color palette and can be popped into a small tin for a quick trek to the beach.
Note: All of the paintings in this post were painted using only these 5 colors (or less, like the above photo) unless otherwise noted. Please make allowances for scanner and monitor limitations!
Colors are (from left to right):
1) DS* Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97)
2) DS Buff Titanium (PW6:1)
3) DS or MG* Raw Umber (PBr7)
4) MG Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
5) MG Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR83)
[*DS is Daniel Smith; MG is M. Graham]
If You Have One Blue...
Almost any seaside painting begins with blue, and I prefer ultramarine because of its warmth and beauty when mixing.
For example, ultramarine plus raw umber produces a beautiful range from smoky gray to deep blue. Ultramarine plus buff produces a light, more opaque blue— perfect for certain sky conditions. Mixing with a touch of yellow creates a gorgeous seagrass green.
Depending upon your location and/or subject matter, you could swap out ultramarine for something else, or even add a blue. Cobalt is another popular blue that is cooler than ultramarine but can work well. If I added a blue, I'd choose Manganese Blue Hue (PB15)— great for clear skies!
If you want to capture a smoky sea and sky like in the photo, swap out the yellow (which you won't need) or even the ultramarine for Indanthrone Blue. Though I can obtain similar by mixing ultramarine with raw umber, it is easier and faster to reach for this deep, indigo shade.
If I were traveling to a tropical destination (note to Husband: trips make great anniversary presents!), I'd be tempted to add Phthalo green. Ultra-strong Phthalo is ghastly alone but mixed with ultramarine it creates a gorgeous Caribbean blue. Plus, Phthalo green with yellow or raw umber can produce a beautiful range of greens that are useful in a maritime landscape.
For more examples of various blues for sea and sky, see my post on The Best Blue Watercolors.
The Colors of Sand & Sunlight
If you want to pack ultralight, Buff Titanium is super convenient for sand color, but watering down raw umber can produce almost the same effect. However, I do like the variety Buff provides plus the way it works to tone down other colors in mixes.
Depending on the color of the sand in your area, burnt sienna could be substituted for either of the earth tones in this palette. In fact, if I were to add a sixth color to this palette, it would be burnt sienna. It is a beautiful color, adding warmth to sand and excellent in mixes.
Since sand is so pebbled and shows every footprint and indention, I like to pack a small toothbrush to make splatter effects with the earth tones. Use a mixture of wet-on-wet and dry techniques to get the best effect.
Almost any cool, clear yellow works well for sunshine and when mixing greens for water, grasses and foliage like in the maritime marsh painting above. I also use AZO Yellow (PY151), and I even substituted Yellow Ochre in the coastal painting below because I knew I needed a warmer, more opaque yellow for this scene.
However, I tend to avoid orange-ish yellows at the seashore. Clear, reflecting colors tend to capture the coastal light much better than warm opaques, so for the most part I'm sticking with Hansa.
Is Crimson Necessary?
I wouldn't call it necessary but, wow, how I would miss it! I keep Daniel Smith's Quinacridone Rose (PV19) in my permanent palette, but right now I prefer crimson's boldness at the beach.
A cool red works wonders for skies around coastal areas. I rarely see sunrises or sunsets around an ocean without some serious pinks in them, and most of the time these crimson hues will be reflected on the sand and sea.
Also, Alizarin crimson's mixing range is vast. For deep orange sunsets, mix with yellow. It can also be used to make a serious black— great for capturing lighthouses and other seaside structures— or fabulous purples which often show up in the water and sky. Crimson can also look lovely in shadows and foliage like in the beach path sketch above. It really is an all-purpose color!
So will I stick with only 5 colors for painting the sea? Summer is the busiest season for our family of four. We are constantly on the go, and my goal was to see how little I truly needed during our outings to the beach. And through I enjoy the ease (and even the challenge!) of only 5 colors, I find myself often waiting until I have my full palette to paint certain scenes. I may bring my palette up to 8 colors and see if I can use that year around. If it works, I'll let you know!
Even if you don't whittle your seaside palette down to five colors, I hope this gives you a few ideas about what these amazing pigments can do. To see complete mixes using four of these five colors, see my downloadable 14-color palette mixing chart.
And I'm totally open to new ideas, so I'd love to hear about your favorite pigments for capturing coastal scenes! Leave me a comment to share your favorite seaside hues.