How to Create a Bright Coral Reef with Acrylic Paint

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If you love the ocean and have some great memories of your last snorkeling excursion or of a visit to a big aquarium, you are probably a fan of underwater paintings. It is easier than you may think to create this world full of wonders on your own canvas.

Things You'll Need

  • Canvas or canvas board
  • Watercolor pencils in dark blue or gray
  • Acrylic paint in dark blue, turquoise, viridian green, white, payne's gray, burnt umber, black, yellow, red, violet dark purple
  • Wide sponge brush, 1 or 2 inches
  • Several flat acrylic brushes, 20 mm
  • Angled acrylic brush, 10 mm
  • Thin round brush for details
  • Acrylic fan shaped brush, small
  • Water container

Paint the background. Use the wide sponge brush to quickly spread a light blue tone all over the canvas. Before this is dry, add a drop of the darker blue on the sponge and pull it in a slightly curved flow across the very top of your canvas. Then, add a couple of drops of white on the same sponge brush and pull it in the opposite direction in an alternating curve. The result should resemble the slight movement of waves as seen when looking up from under water. Use a flat brush to mix a sandy brown with the burnt umber and some white. Work this into the bottom of the painting, covering less than one-third of the canvas. Let dry.

Design your painting. Corals come in many shapes and sizes, from round like a cauliflower to mushroom shapes and also in the shape of opened fans or trees with blunt edges. Pick your favorites and build your arrangement with some smaller, rounder shapes on the bottom and in front, branchlike coral fingers in the background and the fragile fans on the sides. Play with the arrangement on paper first and, once you feel the balance is there, transfer it to your canvas using the watercolor pencil. The lines can easily be corrected with a moist tissue.

Paint the coral. Fill the shapes in the dominant color of the coral; for the ones in the background choose muted tones, becoming more and more blue in the distance. Payne's gray is a good base color for the branches and some of the bottom shapes. You don't want your coral to outshine the fish that will be added next. Let dry. As a next layer, add the shadows in a couple tones darker and, once those are dry, add some subtle highlights to bring a three-dimensional feel to the painting. This is also the time to add some detail to your coral and perhaps include a few sea urchins, small rocks or shells at the bottom. Use the fan brush to add light texture to the coral by applying a lighter than base color in small dots or streaks. Let dry.

Pick your favorite fish and find a perfect place for them in their colorful new habitat on your canvas. Some of the most stunning tropical fish are the moorish idol, the yellow tang, the parrot fish and the family of trigger fish. Draw them into the coral with your watercolor pencils and then fill in the lines with white color. You might need a couple of thin coats to fully block out the background. Paint the rest of the fish in their natural colors. Let dry. Add shadows and finish it all with a few dabs of light reflexes.

Preserve. Once your painting is thoroughly dry and you are happy with the result, you may cover it with a layer of acrylic lacquer or a fixative spray. They come in matte or glossy, and it is a matter of your personal taste which to choose. A shiny coat usually makes the colors a touch more brilliant and creates a look of an oil paint.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you don't use all of the paint on your palette at once, lightly mist it with some water and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap to keep it fresh for the next day. Use a retarder medium to lengthen the time your acrylic paint stays wet. It helps with blending and on larger surfaces. Always wash your brushes with warm water immediately after painting. Once dry, the paint won't come out. The same applies to stains on carpets and clothes.
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