How to Paint Sunsets

The key to painting sunsets convincingly involves portraying how colour and tone gradate steeply between horizon and zenith. The shimmering colours of sunsets can also be achieved by juxtaposing contrasting colours with neutrals.

Painting of a Sunset
The striking colours of sunset give the artist opportunities to explore outlandish techniques and processes. In this demonstration, using impasto medium and palette knives help to give the painting a sense of texture. More about impasto medium in a moment, for now, the following tips might help the beginner get to grips with painting sunsets.
  • Sunsets will occasionally feature the most bizarre colours, not normally seen in nature. The temptation might be to tone them down. If they are perceivable by the eye, record them faithfully
  • The tonal shift between the zenith and the horizon will often be more pronounced during dusk and dawn. Heightened awareness of tones will help the artist accurately portray sunsets
  • Sunsets often contain an odd combination of bright, garish colours and neutrals. Sensitive observation of the neutrals will make the bright colours appear more striking and convincing
  • Rendering a sunset onto a white painting surface will make judging the tonal balance impossible. Applying a thin layer of paint in a neutral colour, as in this demonstration, will help set the tones of the painting. Such a preparation is known as an imprimitura.
Art Materials Required
  1. A photograph of a dramatic sunset
  2. Acrylic paint in burnt umber
  3. Oil paints in the following colours: titanium, pthalo blue, ultramarine, viridian, permanent rose, cadmium yellow (pale) lemon yellow, burnt sienna and burnt umber
  4. A piece of MDF measuring 12" x 16" (30.5 x 40.5cm)
  5. A tube of impasto medium
  6. A small and medium sized palette knife with a crooked handle
  7. A palette consisting of a china plate
  8. Washing up liquid for the cleaning up the materials
  9. A few rags
Tips on Painting Sunsets Using Impasto Medium
Impasto medium is an alky-based gel that adds bulks to the paint for impasto techniques. Do not be put off by its brownish colour, it will not affect the hue of the colour. Simply mix a little into the pigment in a proportion of no more than fifty-fifty.
Demonstration on Painting a Sunset
The painting surface had been prepared with a thin wash of burnt umber acrylic paint and allowed to dry. With a thin palette knife, cadmium yellow, burnt sienna and white was mixed with a little impasto medium and ladled onto the area near the horizon.
With a medium palette knife, pthalo blue, white and a little viridian was mixed with some impasto medium and ladled onto the area just above the horizon. The two areas of colour were then carefully knitted together. 
To avoid unwanted dirty colours bands forming when blending two contrasting colours within the sky, dabbing a little white onto the mixture will result in delicate pastels or neutrals often featured in sunsets.
More pthalo blue was introduced into the blue mixture and scraped onto the sky towards the zenith. A little more pthalo blue was introduced towards the top of the sky.
With a thin palette knife, streaks of permanent rose and cadmium yellow was applied onto of the pale blue area of sky. Stark contrast between hues was brought out by ladling neat pthalo blue towards the zenith of the sky.
The Colour of Sunset
The sun skidding over the bases of the cloud was suggested by dabbing permanent rose and white onto selected areas of the dark blue areas of cloud. Care was taken that the two colours did not mix together, resulting in a muddy mix. The painting was then completed by mixing ultramarine and burnt umber and dabbing it onto the silhouette of trees in the foreground. This immediately brought out the bright colours at the horizon.
Read about the anatomy of the color orange on my science of color site. 

This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon. © Rachel Shirley 2010