Watercolor Tips For Capturing Harbor and Boats

Irrespective of your experience level, this blog post is a treasure trove of invaluable tips and techniques to infuse life into your harbor and boat paintings.

Watercolor Tips For Capturing Harbor and Boats
Choppy by Robert Joyner

Whether you are a seasoned watercolorist or a beginner, this blog post will provide you with valuable tips and techniques to bring your harbor and boat paintings to life. The charm of a harbor, with its bustling boats, shimmering water, and picturesque landscapes, has inspired artists for centuries.

Unlock the secrets to creating breathtaking boat and harbor watercolor paintings with these inspiring ideas and expert tips

Watercolor, with its fluidity and transparency, is the perfect medium to capture the essence and tranquility of these maritime scenes. We will kick things off with a video demo where I paint a loose, expressive harbor scene that will help inspire your next masterpiece. So, grab your brushes and let's set sail on a nautical painting adventure!

Study and Observe

Before diving into your painting, take some time to observe the harbor and boats you wish to capture. Visit the location, if possible, and immerse yourself in the atmosphere. Observe the play of light on the water, the reflections, the colors of the boats, and the overall composition. Take photographs or make sketches to reference later. Understanding the subject matter will enable you to add authenticity and depth to your paintings.

Presented below is the captivating inspiration image for my upcoming painting, brimming with intricate details that possess the potential to overwhelm the composition. Remember, it is crucial to initially focus on the prominent shapes and assess their compatibility with the overall design.

Should the design and composition fail to harmonize, the entire artwork may suffer as a result. So, spend time learning how to use good design techniques and avoid common mistakes such as symmetry, tangents and cropping errors.
Inspiration image for painting
Inspiration image

Start with a Plan

Before applying the first brushstroke, create a rough sketch or thumbnail of your composition. This will help you establish the overall layout and balance of your painting. Consider the placement of the horizon line, boats, and any architectural elements, such as piers or lighthouses. Keep in mind the rule of thirds or other compositional techniques to create a visually pleasing arrangement.

Colors and Palettes

Harbors and boats offer a vibrant color palette that can be both challenging and exciting to work with. Choose a limited range of colors to maintain harmony and balance in your painting. Blues, greens, ochres, and warm grays are commonly found in harbor scenes. Experiment with different color combinations to create depth and capture the unique atmosphere of the location. Remember that watercolor paints tend to dry lighter than they appear when wet, so test your colors on a scrap paper before applying them to your artwork.

Here's a great article for learning how to mix watercolors like a pro! Have a look,,,

Comprehensive Watercolor Mixing Guide for Beginners
Tips and tricks for learning how to mix watercolors. This is a comprehensive beginner’s guide with essential mixing skills and color theory.
Always use color harmony in your watercolor landscapes
Color harmony study by Robert Joyner

Mastering Water and Reflections

Water is a crucial element in harbor scenes, and capturing its translucency and reflections is essential. Begin by wetting the area where the water will be painted, then introduce colors in a loose and fluid manner. Use horizontal brushstrokes to mimic the movement of water. To create reflections, simply mirror the shapes and colors of boats or buildings, with a slight softening effect. Remember that reflections are often darker and less detailed than the objects being reflected.

Boats: Focus on the Big Shape

Boats are the heart of any harbor scene, and paying attention to their shapes will elevate your painting. Start by sketching the basic shape of each boat, focusing on proportions and perspective. Try looking at the contour before adding details.

Add small details like masts, ropes, and windows to create interest. Use different brush sizes and techniques to achieve texture and depth. Be patient and take your time, as capturing the intricate details of boats can be challenging but rewarding.

Loose watercolor landscape with harbor and boats by Robert Joyner
Loose watercolor landscape with harbor and boats by Robert Joyner

Play with Light and Shadow

Light and shadow add drama and dimension to any painting. In harbor scenes, the interplay of light and shadow can be particularly captivating. Observe the direction of light and its effect on the boats and surrounding structures. Use light washes for the sunlit areas and darker washes for the shadows. Enhance the contrast to create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality.

Add People and Activity

Including figures and activity in your harbor painting can bring it to life. Paint tiny figures on boats or along the harbor, capturing the sense of movement and the scale of the scene. Suggest activity through small details like flags, seagulls, or waves. These elements not only enhance the narrative of your painting but also add a sense of scale and proportion.

Not mentioned here is watercolor materials. Below is a fantastic article that covers the supplies I use and recommend,

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Watercolor Supplies
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced artist, choosing the right watercolor supplies is crucial to achieving stunning results.


Watercolor is a versatile medium that allows artists to capture the vibrant beauty of harbors and boats with its fluidity and transparency. By studying and observing your subject, planning your composition, selecting a harmonious color palette, mastering water and reflections, focusing on boat details, playing with light and shadow, and adding people and activity, you can create captivating harbor and boat paintings.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Embrace the process of learning and experimenting with different techniques. Each painting you create will bring you closer to mastering the art of capturing the essence of harbors and boats in watercolor.

Additionally, don't be afraid to add your personal touch and style to your paintings. Whether you prefer a realistic approach or a more loose and impressionistic style, infusing your work with your unique artistic voice will make it truly special.

Lastly, enjoy the journey. Painting harbors and boats allows you to explore the serenity of the sea, the charm of coastal towns, and the fascinating world of maritime activities. Let the process of creating art take you on a nautical adventure, filled with creativity, inspiration, and a deep appreciation for the beauty of harbors and boats.

So, set sail with your watercolor palette, immerse yourself in the beauty of the sea, and let your brushes dance on the paper as you create stunning harbor and boat paintings that capture the essence of these maritime scenes. Happy painting!