How to Paint a Sunset

Woman painting on beach
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Painting wet-on-wet makes for an effective sunset (or sunrise). Work fast and loosely, and instead of adding too much detail to the sky and clouds, focus on achieving an overall effect or impression.

How to Paint a Sunset

Painting a sunset is a relaxing activity and a great way to practice your skills. It doesn't require too many materials, either—just a large brush, a surface for painting on, and a few basic colors.

  1. Use a big brush, something at least 1.5 inches wide, so you can get the paint down rapidly (and don't get bogged down trying to paint the details). Paint in long strokes until you've created the overall effect of a sunset sky. Once you've got the overall impression of a sunset, you can take some time, if you wish, to tighten up the shape of your clouds.
  2. Have the colors you want to use at hand. Depending on the sunset you've got in mind, you'll want a yellow, orange (or red and yellow you can mix), blue, purple (or blue and red), and white—plus something for dark shadows in the clouds such as burnt umber or Payne's Grey. The latter mixed in with your sunset colors may work well for silhouettes in the foreground too.
  3. Start by making the entire area where the sunset sky is going to be damp. This will help the colors you're going to be painting with spread easily and, with acrylics/watercolor, slow down the drying rate, giving you more working time. If you're using acrylic or watercolor, you can use clean water or liquid (fluid) white. If you're using oils, use a thin glaze of liquid white or a very thin wipe of whichever oil you use.
  1. Work from light to dark, so you don't have to worry as much about getting your brush totally clean between colors. Also, it's easier to make a sunset darker than it is to lighten it. Start with the yellows and oranges, then add the darker colors in later.
  2. If there are going to be any areas of blue, don't paint yellow or orange there—if you do, you'll end up with a green mix when you add the blue.
  3. It's better to use too little of a dark color initially than too much, but if you do find the sunset has gone too dark, wipe off the paint with a cloth and start again.
  4. Once you've got all the colors down, blend them so you've got mostly soft edges rather than hard edges. Even the edges of clouds tend to be surprisingly soft.
  5. Don't forget to consider tone, not just color. Check the tone of the sky toward the top of the scene compared to the horizon. Watch for areas of light tone where the sun catches the edges of clouds (add a little white here).
  6. Any objects silhouetted in the foreground will be very dark in tone, but not totally black and flat. Mix a chromatic black for these silhouettes.
  1. Once you've got the general feel of the sky, go in and refine the shape of your clouds. Focus on the highlights and shadows rather than fussing with the middle tones.