Painting a Reef – Step by Step

Have you ever looked at a painting and thought ‘How did the artist do that?’ Quite often people approach me and share similar comments when talking about my paintings. My generic response is typically ‘It takes a lot of time and attention to detail’ or ‘All you need is just a little patience’ (this is where I start humming like Axl Rose). But what I really want to say is ‘It all starts with a sketch…’

Step 1. The Sketch.

As I was saying, it all starts with a sketch. Most paintings start with a simple sketch on paper or on the canvas. The biggest goal for the sketch is composition and the placement of the subjects. You want to stay away from too much shading when sketching as it will tend to smudge with your paints. Try sketching with a graphite pencil or charcoal to get solid and very visible results. Once the sketch is complete, I suggest that you spray the canvas lightly with a varnish to keep the pencil or charcoal from smudging and mixing with your paints.



Step 2: Underpainting

Underpainting is a helpful technique to deploy when you want to create a great deal of depth in your colors. Try selecting a dark base color but avoid using black as it tends to be too dark for this purpose.


Step 3: Base Colors

Paint from the background to foreground. I like to start adding base colors at this point. Here you can see I painted the sky, topwater, and underwater in oils with the underpainting showing through.  You can see I painted over the reef on the right of the canvas just a bit. I am not too careful with the placement of the paints as I apply background layers. This is because I will be layering more paint on top of the overpainted areas.

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Step 4: Applying Colors

When I am ready to continue, I start adding in dark colors first. You can see in the following series, I painted darker colors on the turtles, started to play with shading on their shells, and then began painting the reef and reef fishes.

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Step 5: Mistakes are OK!

As I was painting this image, I wanted a school of fish off to the bottom left of the canvas. I started painting a school of soldierfish, but felt they didn’t really fit into the scene well. I re-painted the sand bottom and instead substituted a school of surgeonfish.  It’s OK to make mistakes while you are painting so long as you take it in stride and realize it is within your power to correct it. I suggest you walk away from the painting for an hour or two and occupy your mind with something else. Then come back to the painting with a subjective eye and find your solution. I try not to make overly emotional decision when these little inconveniences pop up.

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 Step 6: Finish the Details and Varnish.

Keep adding little details to your painting as you see fit. At some point you will feel as though one more brushstroke will ruin your creation. If you get that feeling, STOP! Take a quick break and step away from the canvas to give yourself the opportunity take the painting in.

When you feel like your painting is complete, let your oil paints dry completely. This could take 30 to 60 days depending on the colors used, amount of paint used, and environment in your studio. Once dried, apply a  varnish to protect the paint from UV light and other harmful pollutants.



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