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Painting Rocky Cliffs

by | Jun 21, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

When I think of going to the ocean, I immediately think of standing on the rocky cliffs. While I grew up around the famous beaches of Santa Cruz, I really always connected to the cliffs. I loved the view, the lack of messy sand in my shoes, the tide pools, and the sound of wave pounding into the rocks.

Creating Distance and Scale Properly

Cliffs are a fun thing to paint, but the scale can be hard to show. Having a subject of known scale helps with this. Many times artists put people into a painting to help with the scale. Just be careful, because people quickly become the focal point of the painting. I have used trees – still hard to tell size with – and a lighthouse. Sometimes the scale is just obvious, because of the horizon line.

Neah-Kah-Nie Oregon Coast Painting
© Kristen O’Neill, Near North Neah-Kah-Nie, Acrylic on Paper, 14″ x 11″, Sold.

In the painting above, the rocks are in the foreground. However, the scale is determined by the horizon line. We can tell that the hills next to the ocean are large, because the are far away. The rocks at our feet would be hard to tell the scale of, but some blooming flowers past them, make them about 1-2 feet across maximum. The line of evergreen trees just above the rocks (and down the hill) helps create the angle of looking down and out from a vista point.

Painting Rocky Texture

Rocks can be hard to paint! If you are struggling with this, go easy on yourself. I know I struggled with it for a while, too. One thing is that rocks are heavy. So, how can you show this with paint? Make sure that there is enough paint on your brush to lay down thickly. Wispy rocks don’t make sense. Is there a shadow near the bottom? Are you using bold strokes to show that the rock is substantial? Look at how other artists painting rocks. What was their brush doing? How did the colors relate to the rest of the painting. 


Landscape painting creek with ferns
©Kristen O’Neill, Fall Creek Light, Oil on Canvas, 36″ x 48″

The rock in the lower left corner gave me a hard time. Until I painted it with the intention of all the strokes going the same way, and then used the moss to cover the edges. Before I was trying to give it angular edges, and it just wasn’t reading properly. There are a variety of rocks in this painting, some above water and some under.

Tide Pools

Tide pools are glorious. I will fully admit I once ditched school to go tide-pooling. (Don’t tell my kids.) They are filled with amazing sea creatures and their colors. While some people dream of visiting the beach to relax on the sand, you’ll see me wandering towards the rocks to explore these pools that change as the tides change.

These little ecosystems in a puddle are so intriguing, and worth painting just to enjoy them.

This tide pool painting doesn’t even have rocks!

Kelp painting
© Kristen O’Neill, Kelp, Acrylic on Canvas, 24″ x 18″. Sold. Inspired by @girlinwaterphotography and used with her permission.

Rocky Variations

Oregon Coast Trail painting Kristen O'Neill
©Kristen O’Neill, Geology, Acrylic on Paper, 11″ x 14″.

Rocks can be so many ways and have such varieties. In the painting above, I was struck by the nearly vertical layering rocks, mixed with a small sandy beach, and then small rocks along the water. The Oregon coast is amazing, and known for its interesting haystack rocks all long the state. Some of which are seen further back toward the horizon. Trees lend a bit of scale in the intimate alcove.

Remember: Rocks can be tricky. Just keep trying and look around and see how other artists have approached them. Happy painting!