Watercolor Ocean Floor Landscapes


6th grade learns about the ocean floor as part of their science curriculum, and about Australia as part of their social studies curriculum, so these coral reef undersea landscapes are a great cross-curricular connection.


Of course, I’m most focused on their Visual Art curriculum–and this project also does a beautiful job teaching how artists create a sense of depth in a landscape work, making some objects appear closer and others further away.


We start by looking at landscape master works, identifying how the artists use size, level of detail, and placement on the picture plane to create the sense of depth. Then I introduce atmospheric perspective–how colors in the distance become dulled by the atmosphere (or in our case, the sea water).

Following that discussion, students use a wet-on-wet watercolor technique to tint their papers a marbled blue and green in preparation for the next class.


On day 2, we look at photos of coral reefs and note how atmospheric perspective dulls color in the middle & backgrounds so that they appear mostly blue. We talk about features of the ocean floor, like rock formations and coral growth, and students establish a background and middle ground on their tinted papers using diluted watercolor (we use liquid watercolors for this entire project–so vibrant!), including tiny sea life off in the distance and medium-sized sea life in the middle ground. The background and its sea life are painted with one coat of diluted blue, and the middle ground gets a second coat to brighten and distinguish it from the background, creating quite realistic atmospheric perspective.


On day 3, students get a fresh sheet of watercolor paper (decadent, I know–but these projects are worth it)! They establish an off-center focal point by drawing a large sea creature, then add the rest of the foreground in high detail to make everything appear very close to the viewer.

I check out every single book the media center has with photos of coral reef life, and encourage students to bring phones or tablets for specific visual references. We talk about moving from the “symbol-making” to “observational drawing” stage in their artistic development, and avoiding stylized or cartoonish drawings (just for now, as the intent here is realism)!


After a few days of drawing and painting their foregrounds, students are ready to cut them out and attach them to their middle & background paper. Then these are ready for display! Several (the ones pictured here in close-up) will be displayed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this summer and fall, so keep an eye out when you’re traveling!