Portland Head Lighthouse
Watercolor Painting Tutorial

by Jennifer Branch
YouTube Watercolor Painting Tutorial

Here's a classic view of the iconic Portland Head Lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The lighthouse was started in 1790, but it's changed over the years. Portland Head is absolutely covered with tourists much of the time, though if you move off the main paths you can find some quieter areas. Despite the tourists (and artists) covering the area, it's still well worth seeing as one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world.

As someone who was married on top of a lighthouse, I'm pretty fond of them. So I've been to and sketched a lot of the lighthouses in Maine. I plan on painting all of them! Portland Head is just an amazing lighthouse to paint. It completely changes with the angle and the weather. Bright red against storm cloud gray can be pretty dramatic!

This is the iconic view of Portland Head Lighthouse everyone recognizes immediately, whether they've been there or not! It's actually a difficult view to paint since the foreground doesn't really exist (unless you slap in some very tall grasses), the midground divides the painting, and the red roof screams against the sky. It's also absolutely gorgeous with a sky that goes on forever. Wild nature at its height, with man's attempt at taming standing bravely and screaming bright red defiance.

I do love lighthouses!

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting tutorial

Painting Tutorial Level


Skill Building

Negative Painting



Art Supplies

14" x 20"
Arches Rough Press

Isabey Pointed Round Sable, no.14
Isabey Rigger, no.1


M. Graham watercolors

Azo Yellow
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Red
Pthalo Green
Pthalo Blue
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Teal
Ultramarine Pink
Burnt Sienna
White Gouache

Painting Demonstration 1

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting Lesson 1

I begin with a bold wash of ultramarine blue and cobalt on the sky. It's such a gorgeous sky that stretches forever. I know I'll need several layers on it.

Painting Demonstration 2

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting Lesson 2

I added a few dashes of cobalt teal in the sky then moved down into the ocean and around to the rocks. I'm keeping everything very light and loose, leaving plenty of whites.

Painting Demonstration 3

Portland Head Lighthouse Painting Tutorial 3

I touch the sea with pthalocyanine blue, leaving small gaps on the rought press paper. I use pthalo blue and burnt sienna for a strong dark in the deep crevice under the cliff. It's awsomely deep there where the water's rush through and I want a deep, but muted, dark. The cliff shadow isn't the center of interest!

Now the really fun part! I love painting endless ocean skies!
I'm using ultramarine blue mixed with nickel azo yellow and ultramarine pink to mute it a little. I want a very grayed base for the cloud shadows. Into that base I'm dashing bits of the three colors and cobalt teal. This part of the painting, work fast!

When I'm almost done with the wash I blur a few harsh edges on the clouds. Big fluffy clouds do have very defined edges, but they also have edges that disappear. A little blurring goes a long way!

Artist Tips

Paint twice as dark as you think you need. It will dry lighter!
Portland Head Lighthouse watercolor painting tutorial by Jennifer Branch

Painting Demonstration 4

Portland Head Lighthouse Painting Tutorial 4

Notice how much lighter the sky has dried. Know what your pigments will look like when they're dry!

I start working with the rocks a little more. I want strong darks all around the waterline.

Painting Demonstration 5

Portland Head Lighthouse Painting Tutorial 5

Since I have the sky almost finished and some darks in the rocks, it's time to paint the lighthouse detail! If I had started the lighthouse detail before I'd painted the base for the rest of the painting then the values would have been off.

Since the building is white, I start with a warm nickel azo yellow glow for the shadows. While that's still damp, I start defining the doors and trim with cobalt teal and nickel azo yellow. I paint the entire windows, not trying to do just the trimwork.

I paint the lighthouse top with pthalo blue and burnt sienna. Notice how I pulled a little color off the black reflection with a rag. It just shows the blue sky color underneath - perfect for a reflection!

I kept the white of the paper for the glass reflection. If you can't do that, just use white gouache.

Painting Demonstration 6

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting Tutorial 6

Now for a little darker trimwork and the darks of the windows. I do these with a tiny rigger brush.

The bright cadmium red of the roof is tricky. It absolutely stands out against the sky. It's supposed to! But leave a few holes in it so it flows better with the rest of the painting.

Painting Demonstration 7

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting Tutorial 7

I needed to darken the highlights on the rocks so they set off the lighthouse. A lot of dry brush on the rocks in multiple passes gives them a subtle texture.

I use the same green and yellows as the lighthouse trim to lightly paint the far islands. This little touch gives a sense of depth to far ocean horizon.

Portland Head Lighthouse Watercolor Painting Tutorial

Portland Head Lighthouse Final Watercolor Painting!

Now that the painting has dried, the reason for using rough press paper really shows up! Texture on the surf and ocean, texture on the rocks and texture in the sky. The type of paper you use for a painting can completely change the feel of the painting.

I softened the left edge of the red roof a little with a wet rag. It was distracting from the actual lighthouse.

I'm happy with this classic view of Portland Head Lighthouse. My lovely mother-in-law has already claimed the painting (she loves lighthouses even more than I do) so it's even a Christmas present. Very appropriate for Christmas with green and red, I think.

I have 2 more views I want to paint of Portland Head Lighthouse - at the moment. It's such a dramatic and iconic piece of America, that I'll probably paint a lot more than that over my lifetime. I really can't wait until the boys are old enough for me to safely sketch on location there again! Sometime next year I'll paint the next view of the lighthouse for you.

My fingers really are itching to start, but I think for painting lessons, it's better to mix up the subject matter a bit. So many artists get stuck painting just one subject - or different subjects exactly the same!

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