Watercolor Techniques For Painting A California Coastal Scene

We’re tackling a landscape in this lesson, this time a simple coastal scene. You can expect to learn how to create a dramatic painting from a reference photo, and how to capture natural landscapes and landforms. You’ll also learn an atmospheric perspective technique which you can use to create the illusion of depth in a painting.


  • How to apply the "atmospheric perspective" watercolor technique to suggest distance.
  • How to paint an active sky right before sunset.
  • How to dramatize a painting based on a reference photo.
  • How to mix primary and complimentary colors.
  • How to paint ocean surf.
  • How to paint cliffs and other natural landscapes.
  • How to paint a village and cars.


Paints On The Palette (Various Brands)

Watercolor Paper: 

Fabriano 140-pound rough watercolor paper


  • Escoda Joseph Zbukvic Signature Series Round Brush (20)
  • Escoda Joseph Zbukvic Signature Series Round Brush (12)
  • Escoda Joseph Zbukvic Signature Series Round Brush (8)
  • Neef long brush set (Australia)


  • Mechanical pencil with 0.7 lead for sketching and tracing
  • Container of clean water
  • Auxiliary tray for mixing additional colors
  • A towel or rag to rest brushes on
  • Tissue or paper towel



1st_a-1 The goal of this first step is to produce a good composition for your painting, so examine your reference photo and take some cues from there. Start off your sketch by drawing in the horizon line, then add the cliff and the elements on top of it. Use what you’ve sketched as a guide on how to position additional elements; for example, the houses have roofs that all line up with the horizon line. Remember to draw without being too precious about your lines. This sketch is simply a guide, and the main event will be brought out by your paint. Reference Photo (Click To Enlarge) Reference photo for coastal scene Finished Sketch 1st_b_sketch 2nd_a Now that you have a sketch in place, it’s time to begin painting! Load a no. 12 rigger brush with diluted Yellow Ochre and block in the bottom of the cliff. Use loose, choppy strokes to produce a textured, damp layer. Next, load the brush with Olive Green darkened with a hint of Mineral Violet, and drop this into the top of the damp layer using the wet-in-wet technique. As you do this, the paint should cascade down into the rest of the layer, producing an interesting color transition. Do the same with each of the following colors: Carbazole Violet, Cobalt Violet Light, Cobalt Green, and Cerulean Blue. Vary where and how much new color you drop into the layer so that each color has a spot to shine in. Once you’re finished, leave the cliff to dry and move on to the next step. 2nd_b Blocking in the cliff using Yellow Ochre and Olive Green; then Carbazole Violet; and lastly Cobalt Violet Light, Cobalt Green and Cerulean Blue. 3rd_a While the cliff dries, we’ll shift our focus to the water. Combine Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Green, and a hint of Cobalt Blue Hue to produce a beautiful, vibrant blue tint. Load your rigger brush with this color and begin blocking in the water, starting from the horizon. Use long, horizontal strokes to capture the smooth texture of the water. As you fill in the water, add more Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue Hue, or hints of Indigo and Prussian Blue, to add subtle color variation. Don’t forget to leave white spaces in between blocks of blue for the ocean waves. Give the waves more character by diluting Cobalt Blue Hue and Cobalt Green and laying them into the white sections with short, choppy strokes. Feel free to leave white spaces in between strokes to give the waves a hint of “sparkle”. While these layers are still wet, add subtle Viridian combined with Cobalt Blue Hue into them to give the waves some shadowy areas. Darken the blue mixture with Neutral Tint and use it to add darker streaks into the water in the distance. We’ll finish off this step by painting the mountain in the distance. Add Yellow Ochre to the dark blue mixture and block in the mountain in the distance. Try to leave a thin white space between the mountain and the water so that their colors don’t run into each other. If the layer is too dark, use an old rag to lift up some of the pigment. Don’t be afraid to paint through the sections where there are trees; just be sure that the blue of the mountain is diluted so that there is less pigment. Finish off the mountain by adding a glaze over it with diluted Chromium Green Oxide combined with blue. This will give the mountain a subtle green tint which will help to push it even further into the background. 3rd_b Blocking in the water. 3rd_c Painting the mountain in the distance. 4th-1 We’re tackling the sky now, and we’ll be using the wet-in-wet technique to capture its softness. First, wet the whole sky area with a layer of clean water, lifting off excess water that pools around the edges. Load your brush with diluted Gamboge Nova and Brilliant Orange, and drop the bright paint into the sky. Paint in diagonal strokes from top to bottom to create a whispy texture, and leave out sections of white for the clouds. Like with the water, you can add more Gamboge Nova or Brilliant Orange into the sky to add subtle variation in the color. Next, pick up diluted Neutral Tint and block in the shadows of the clouds to give them more dimension. 5th_a While the sky dries, we’ll return to the cliff again. Load your rigger brush with Yellow Ochre and block in the top of the cliff, painting around where the buildings and cars are sketched. Next, pick up diluted Yellow Ochre combined with Neutral Tint and glaze over the bottom of the cliff to darken it. While that layer is still wet, drop in hints of Prussian Blue, Neutral Tint, Cobalt Green, Olive Green, and Cobalt Violet Light to give the cliff’s rocky exterior more definition. 5th_b Layering the cliff. 6th_a Pick up a smaller no. 8 rigger brush and use Olive Green to block in the trees on the left side of the cliff. While the green layer is still wet, add Mineral Violet and allow the colors to mix together naturally on the page. Additionally, use the Mineral Violet to add trunks to the trees. To create more visual interest, vary the distances between each trunk, as well as the trunks’ thicknesses. Finish off this grove of trees by using Olive Green to add smaller trees in between the ones already established. Use Viridian with Olive Green to begin blocking in the trees hanging over the buildings, painting from left to right. As you paint the tree line, add Cobalt Green to subtly change the tint around the middle section, then finish it off by adding Cobalt Blue. While the tree line is wet, dab in more Cobalt Blue and Leaf Green to add interesting color variation. While painting this element, be sure to keep the roof line clean. 6th_b Layering trees. (layer 1: Olive Green; layer 2: Mineral Violet) 6th_c Adding the trees above the houses. 7th_a Switch to a no. 20 round brush and prepare Yellow Ochre combined with a hint of blue. Block in the beach area with this color, then drop in Burnt Sienna to warm it up while the layer is still wet. If there’s too much paint on the page, lift the excess with a clean, dry brush. Finish off the beach by adding streaks of Cobalt Violet Light, still working via the wet-in-wet technique so that the colors blend into each other. This will darken the beach and harmonize it with the rest of the painting. While you’re at it, pick up diluted blue and add an additional layer of choppy strokes to the waves to give them more dimension. 7th_b Adding layers to the beach. 8th_a In this step, we finally add details to the busy little houses along the cliff. Use a no. 8 round brush to block in the roofs with alternating shades of Burnt Sienna and Neutral Tint. Next use alternating shades of green, blue, and violet to block in the rest of the houses. Allow these layers to dry before adding finer details, such as windows and doors, with Burnt Umber combined with Cobalt Blue Hue. To paint the cars, use Brilliant Orange combined with violet to create a warm gray, then block in the rest with varying shades of green and blue. Fill in the ground underneath the cars with Chromium Green Oxide combined with Yellow Ochre. Add this mixture underneath the trees and houses as well to capture their shadows on the cliff. If any of the orange roofs are too bright, cool them down with diluted blue. Finally, once everything has dried, draw in additional details on the houses and cars with Ivory Black and the tip of your brush. 8th_b Painting houses and cars. 9th_a We’re down to the final touches in this step. Now is the time to take a good look at your painting and see what values need strengthening or toning down. The cliff is rather bright, so the artist uses a diluted dark brown mixture to glaze over it and tone it down. Use the no. 20 round brush for this, and keep your strokes short and choppy to create additional texture. Add a layer of this diluted brown to the beach as well. Next, here’s a helpful tip to create “atmospheric perspective” (i.e. using color to imitate atmosphere and create the illusion of depth) in your painting. Take Zinc White gouache and dilute it until it’s very transparent. Load your brush with this diluted white and glaze over the spot you want to push back - in this painting, apply it to the left side, where the mountain and water meet, and be sure to include the tip of the cliff as well. Apply diluted white to the beach and the frontmost wave as well. Once these transparent white layers dry, they will give these elements a foggy quality, which will help push the focus of the painting to where the houses and cars are. Switch to a no. 6 rigger brush and load it with white gouache, this time using more pigment. Dab the paint into the waves and the water to embellish them. Next, use the white paint to add highlights and details to the cars and houses, as well as seagulls in the sky. Switch to a no. 4 rigger, load it with Yellow Ochre with Zinc White, and add posts sticking up from among the buildings. Finally, use Ivory Black to strengthen the shadows under the cars, and dilute it to a transparent gray to add a touch of detail underneath each seagull. Let everything dry before picking up a liner brush loaded with Brilliant Orange mixed with Zinc White, and signing your work. 9th_b Darkening the cliff; using white gouache to push back elements, and adding details to waves. 9th_c_houses Adding details to scenery with white gouache. 9th_d_cars Adding highlights and shadow details to cars. 9th_e_signing The artist signing his work.


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Greg Conley
Greg Conley


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