Watercolor Boat Painting Tutorial

Fishing Boat watercolor painting by Michele Clamp

Want to paint this watercolor boat painting? Follow the step by step instructions (including video at the end) and see how easy this can be!

I just can’t resist painting boats in watercolor. The colors, the details, the sun and shadow – all come together to make painting these watercolor boats so much fun. In this watercolor boat tutorial I break down all the steps and show you how you can paint this scene. Boat watercolor paintings can seem daunting but if you take things slowly it’s amazing how they come together.

Watercolor Materials Needed

  • Mechanical pencil
  • Watercolor paper (I like Fabriano Artistco 140lb cold press)
  • Size 10 round sable or synthetic sable
    • Permanent rose
    • Vermillion/pyrrole red/naphthol red
    • Ultramarine blue
    • Cobalt blue/cerulean blue
    • Yellow ochre
    • Lemon yellow
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Black
  • Value Scale
  • Color isolator
  • Palette/paper towels/water pot
  • Small spray bottle of water

Watercolor Boat Drawing

Watercolor fishing boats drawing
Watercolor fishing boats drawing

The drawing for this painting is pretty important. Sometimes I won’t put much detail into a drawing and just indicate the main shapes. For instance a landscape with trees can be pretty sparse in the drawing. All the detail and texture goes in by eye with just paint. But for this scene there is a lot going on and we want to indicate the position of a lot of different things.

Using a Grid Helps With Drawing Accuracy

I did this drawing by eye but, if you’re not confident with your drawing, you can grid up your paper lightly with pencil and draw it square by square. That way you can be sure you’re getting everything in the right place. It’s not a foolproof method but it gives you far less room for error. I’ve included a gridded up version of the reference below.

Fishing boat reference photo with grid
Fishing boat reference photo with grid

The aspect ratio of the photo is the same as for a 10″x14″ piece of watercolor paper. If you mark your paper into quarters on each side and join them up to make a 4×4 grid you can transfer the drawing more easily onto your paper.

Take Some Time to Make a Plan for Your Painting

Before we dive into the painting it always helps to take a few minutes and plan out what you’re going to do. It can be hard to do this – we want to jump straight in and get those brushes moving and paint splashing around. But a few minutes thought at the start always makes for a better painting. We can spot possible problem areas and make sure we know roughly how we’re going to proceed.

Which Direction is the Light Coming From?

I first make note of where the light is coming from and where the shadows fall. In this case the sun is on our right and the shadows are falling on the left. This is always good to keep in the back of your mind. If the reference is unclear in some areas you can work out how the lights and darks should fall even if you can’t make it out from the photo.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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Where are the Lights and Darks?

The next thing I do is note where my lightest lights are and my darkest darks. Once we’ve located these then we know that everything else has to fall somewhere between those areas. In this case our lightest light is the white hull on the left boat. The darkest darks are in the shadow underneath the boats and possibly inside the cabins. I keep this in mind. Nothing else can be darker or lighter than these areas.

Where are the Main Shapes and Values?

This one is trickier but it pays off giving it some thought. Even though there’s a lot of detail going on in this photo I like to break it down into 4 or 5 main value shapes. In this case I would estimate (or measure using our value scale) the value of the following areas

  • The sand
  • The sky
  • The sea
  • The hulls of the boats (in light and shadow)
  • The cabins of the boats (in light and shadow)

This may seem like a lot to work out ahead of time but getting those big value shapes right is an enormous help getting a scene to hang together and getting it to be convincing.

Identify a Few of the Colors

Watercolor Color Swatches
Watercolor Color Swatches

Doing some test mixes of a few of the main colors can also be a good idea. It’s much easier to do this before the painting. When you’re in the middle of the painting there’s so much going on it’s hard to stop and think about this. It’s a bit like prepping for a recipe. Getting all the ingredients measured out ready ahead of time makes putting a meal together much easier. (Not that I ever really do that – but I should!) In this painting I mixed as I went along but it’s a better idea to try out your color mixes at the start. If you think you can’t remember how you mixed your colors then putting a pencil note next to the swatch is a good idea. It’s doesn’t have to be anything complicated – just a list of the colors is enough.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Finally we Paint!

So let’s start painting. We’re going to paint this in layers and build up the painting from light to dark. We’re first going to block in all the shapes with their lightest colors. Once those are dry we can go back in and add in the darks. This way of working takes a bit of getting used to. As we’re starting with the light colors of all the shapes things won’t start to look three dimensional until quite late on in the painting.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

We want things to look flat to start with.

If we put in too much value variation in the early stages then the darks won’t make as much impact when we put those in. In these early stages try and match the color and value as best you can to the reference. And, most importantly, keep these early washes even. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look right at this stage. It takes a bit of faith but once you get used to it it will all make sense.

Keep Going With the Light Values

Keep going across all of the main shapes of the boats. One thing to remember is that we’re putting in the light value of each different shape but these values may vary from shape to shape. For instance, the hull of the red boat is a bright orange-red in the light. The actual value of this is around a 5 i.e. mid-way down the value scale. If we compare this to the beige area above we can see that it’s a little darker. The beige area in the light is around a 7 but it’s still in the light.

Similarly the red stripe on the left hand boat is around a 4 (i.e. darker than a mid-value) in the light. If you have a value scale and a printout of the reference you can measure the values directly. If the color is distracting (and it can be with bright colors like these) squint your eyes and it becomes easier to judge value.

Use the ChromaMagic Tool to Measure Color

chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting
chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting

Alternatively you can load up the reference in ChromaMagic and click on different areas. It will show you the three components of the color – hue, value and chroma. The color notation is part of the Munsell way of measuring color. It is incredibly useful in painting and makes color very straightforward to analyze.

Paint in the Sea in the Background

Add the sea in a fairly dark blue
Add the sea in a fairly dark blue

The sea in the background goes in next. This is a fairly dark blue and helps to tie the boats in the scene and give us some depth.

As you can see at this point the painting isn’t looking three-dimensional. Don’t panic! This is exactly how it should be looking at this point.

Paint in the Sand Around Your Watercolor Boats

Add a wash for the sand
Add a wash for the sand

Next we’re going to put in the sand. I really like this bit as we get to put in some texture with our spray bottle. One thing to be careful of – sand isn’t yellow. Or rather it is yellow but a very grayed out low chroma yellow. In this scene it’s a kind of beige so make sure you add in some black to your mix to take out some of the brightness. I’ve made the mistake of painting sand far too bright in color many times. Again mixing a swatch of color beforehand helps a lot as does using ChromaMagic for checking the chroma.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Use a Spray Bottle to Add Texture

While your sand wash is still wet take a spray bottle of water and lightly spritz the surface. If the paper is the right level of dampness the water will add small sparkles and splodges in the paint. It adds some interest and texture to the foreground. This can take a bit of practice to get right. If the paper is too wet the water will just disperse and disappear. If the paper is too dry the water won’t do anything at all.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Add the Sky

Note: I’ve got the order slightly wrong here. I’ve already put in some of the darks on the boats before doing the sky. The order doesn’t really matter. You can put in the sky before the shadows and everything should work out fine.

Let’s put in some sky now. The reference photo doesn’t really have much in the way of clouds and I didn’t really want a big expanse of blue up there. So I’ve invented some cloud shapes. You have a lot of freedom here. Put in some blue around wherever you fancy the clouds to be. While the paint is wet take a clean (very clean) damp brush and soften the edges of the clouds. The blue pigment will diffuse out into the damp areas of paper making lovely soft and convinving clouds.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Second Layer Darks

Now this bit is where the painting starts to come to life. We’re going to put in the shadow sides of the objects and make them look three-dimensional. Adding in these contrasting areas also helps the visual impact of the scene and it will make the image more interesting as well as more realistic.

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Don’t Add Color in the Light!

We’ve already painted in the light sides of our objects so we won’t be putting any color in there at all. We’re just going to paint in the shadow colors on mostly the left sides. Make sure your colors are at least a couple of shades darker than your light sides and things will start to take shape. When you get to the insides of the cabins we’re even darker as very little light is getting in there – you don’t need to paint things – just a few dark shapes at different angles will suggest a lot of detail.

Be careful with the shadow on the white hull. We don’t want to go too dark here and keeping that shadow light will really suggest strong sun.

Add a Cast Shadow to Anchor the Boats to the Ground

Finally add some cast shadows on the sand and right at the bottom of the boats. This will make the boats convincingly anchored to the ground.

The Magic Bit – Details on Your Watercolor Boat Painting

Details - masts and rigging
Details – masts and rigging

By this point you should have something that’s looking pretty three-dimensional. This next bit really adds sparkle and interest to your watercolor boat painting! We’re going to put in some lovely details. Put in the masts and rigging with a small synthetic brush. Make sure they’re not too dark – a mid value gray is plenty dark enough here. The other thing to take care with is not to make your lines too continuous. Leave a few gaps here and there as it will make the masts more convincing than if you carefully paint them in one continuous line.

Masts are put in lightly - not too dark
Masts are put in lightly – not too dark

Continue with the masts and smaller details. Add in a few lines for the railings and the ropes holding the buoys. A few light lines on the white hull will also suggest their structure. I hope everything is looking really good by now!

Flags and Signs

Final details in your watercolor boat - flags and signs
Final details in your watercolor boat – flags and signs

We’re right at the end now. A few red marks for the flags will add a pop of color. The signs on the boat go in with an almost black background. The lettering is suggested with a little opaque white.

Final Thoughts on This Watercolor Boat Painting

If you tried this painting I hope it turned out well. I would love to see your results – please feel free to send them to me. I have also videoed the whole process and you can paint along with the full painting.

2 thoughts on “Watercolor Boat Painting Tutorial

  1. Hi Michele,
    Kathy Martinez here. I am working with the ColorMagic tool. Love it except for one problem I am having. My monitor is a Cintiq 32 inch display that I have supposedly color corrected with an i1 display gizmo. The colors for the Munsell chips from

    Kathy your program don’t come through to match my big book Munsell chips. It is way off. My cintiq screen pretty matches my Ipad. Do you have any suggestions? I have just been finding the chip I have that matches the color swatches from ColorMagic, even though they aren’t the same as described in the program.

    1. Hi Kathy – I replied by email. I was thinking that it may well be hard to match chips directly to the screen. I’m going to try with a setup that I know the colors off and see how it goes. ColorMagic will report the colors in the photo accurately but whether you can match to the display directly may not be possible. Screens give out light and chips only reflect the light so comparing them side by side is going to make the chips always look dark. But maybe there’s something else going on! We’ll see. If it’s fixable we’ll fix it.

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