Painting Dolphins in Watercolor

Learn how to recreate a bottle-nose dolphin, a tusked walrus and many more sea creatures in watercolor with The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor.

When I turned 11, I experienced the happiest birthday of my life when my dad took me to the zoo to spend a special night next to the bottle-nosed dolphin tank. It is the realization of a childhood dream for me to paint dolphins for this book. I combined three dolphins in a sketch that capture both their mastery of the water and air, where they exercise their amazing acrobatics.

dolphin 1, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 1 After lightly sketching the dolphins on watercolor paper, I carefully apply masking fluid to the borders of my airborne dolphin and the splashing areas in the surface waters. Once the fluid dries, I paint the top edge of the sky with cerulean blue, letting the pigment run down to the top edge of the surface waves. To deepen this effect, I use a large round brush to dab in more blue at the top edges and let that dilute downward as well. To create the water wash, I paint the entire area directly over the submerged dolphins with a diluted cobalt green mixed with a little turquoise. In the areas to the right of the water, I add lemon yellow and let that run down and to the left, as sunlight shining through the water.

dolphin 2, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 2 I peel away the masking fluid from the previous step. I use masking fluid to outline the dolphins under the surface and block out the highlight areas on the surface and underside of the wave. When the fluid is dry, I repeat the washes from the last step, creating darker blues on the left side and transitioning to lighter greens and yellows as I move to the right. While the wash is still wet, I use a large flat brush to apply watery lemon yellow to the underside of the wave.

dolphin 3, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 3 I lightly brush a thin layer of water over the underside of the waves. Then, with a round pointed brush saturated in ultramarine blue, I create lazy swoops and teardrop shapes that angle downward to the right. As the paper dries, I use a small brush tipped with indigo to paint the darkest shadows in the waves. For the surface waters, I paint only the shadowed ridges and subtle folds in the waves. I use a small, flat brush to paint the hard line of the water’s edge, wet-on-dry. I repeat this process with diluted puddles of indigo, ultramarine blue, and cobalt blue to give the surface definition. When dry, I remove all of the masking fluid.

dolphin 4, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 4 For the underwater dolphins, I paint the dolphin further back with a “bluer” color scheme to create the effect of looking at a more distant object through water. I then apply a wash of cobalt blue and cobalt green to the dolphin, running through the middle of the dolphin and up its tail and dorsal fin. I use a diluted green for the underside and introduce a very subtle and watery mixture of indigo and lake red along the jawline and around the flipper. For the foremost dolphin, I use cobalt mixed with some turquoise for the sides and back but then introduce a wider color scheme, including ultramarine blue along the front flippers and in the face, indigo along the underside of the tail, and some red lake and burnt umber up the back and in reflective shapes along the head and jaw.

dolphin 5, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 5 I create deeper shadows in the underwater dolphins with heavily concentrated indigo and use ultramarine blue for my mid-tone shadows. I add lemon yellow along the bottom edge of the dolphins’ backs, mouths, and fins to pick up some of the warm, sunlight color in the waves. I darken some purples along the dolphins’ throats with lake red mixed with blues.

dolphin 6, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 6 To create the leaping dolphin, I first apply masking fluid to the droplets that overlap the animal’s form, as well as some skinny areas along the fins where I want to preserve the paper’s highlight. Then I wet the entire dolphin shape and add a wash of alizarin crimson, lemon yellow, turquoise, and ultramarine blue. This step is about painting all the light values in the dolphin; although you don’t want to over-paint, simply leaving an area white will miss out on the depth you can create with subtle color tones.

dolphin 7, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 7 With my wash complete, I can now apply darker values to provide contrast and make the dolphin really “pop.” Using a combination of indigo, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna, I add dark reflections on the rubbery skin and distinguish the light underbelly from the top half. In deeper areas of shadow, I apply more blue and indigo. In the mid-tone areas, I mix in some burnt sienna with the blue to create warmer shades of color. I let these colors mix together in some places (such as in the dolphin’s back) to create variegated washes and try to keep some of the shapes distinct in others (such as the reflections along the head). Then I peel away the masking fluid from the flippers to reveal the highlights.

dolphin 8, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor

Step 8 Lastly, I trace along the mouths with indigo to give the jawlines distinction and to create the eyes. The leaping dolphin has more eye detail, so I use a fine-liner brush to paint the curved lines above the eye in burnt sienna and the eyelids under the eye in ultramarine blue. The splashing water, like the dolphin belly, is not entirely white. I paint the bottom edges with the “white” color scheme from the previous step. In the darker shadows, I dilute a mixture of turquoise and indigo to create light blues in the middle of splashes, and I mix lemon yellow with the blues to create some warm highlights. Finally, where I think I painted away too much of the white, I brush in white gouache paint to return the color.

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The Art Of Painting Sea Life In Water colorWith helpful tips and easy-to-follow lessons, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor will teach readers everything they need to know to create beautiful works of art in watercolor.

The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor opens with a guide to essential information on the necessary tools and materials for both sketching and painting, including pencils, paints and brushes, palettes, supports, and mediums. In addition to learning about basic drawing and painting techniques and color theory, readers will learn how to create compelling compositions, achieve depth, and render realistic textures.This new title in the Collector’s Series features a large variety of stunning sea life, from an adorable sea otter to an magnificent whale. With a fresh, modern spin on this majestic subject, The Art of Painting Sea Life in Watercolor is a comprehensive and indispensable resource, packed with beautiful illustrations and expert instruction, for all artists smitten with the animal kingdom.