How to Paint A Vivid Sunset

I absolutely love sunset (and sunrise) paintings. During these times of the day, the contrast between light and dark sharpens, the details start to fade and all these beautiful colours start to get involved.

As there is generally less clarity in sunset scenes, you need to rely more on colour and light to create interest in your painting.

Step 1 – Observe The Light Source

The first step in creating a beautiful sunset painting is observation. In particular, you need to determine the lighting situation.

  • Where is the light coming from (where is the sun positioned)?
  • How much direct sunlight is there?
  • How much reflective light is there (light bouncing around in your scene)?
  • Are there any clouds (which might defuse the light)?

Every sunset will be slightly different depending on the conditions, so you need to observe all the elements and try not to make assumptions. For example, generally, the colour temperature in a sunset is warm, however, perhaps it is a stormy day and clouds are diffusing all the light, creating an overall cool temperature.

In the reference photo below, the light is coming directly at us and is very low on the horizon. This creates silhouettes of any objects (the boats and land). The clouds defuse much of the light and spread it generally across the scene.

Step 2 – Create A Solid Foundation For Your Highlights

The next step in creating a visually stunning sunset painting is to build a solid foundation so that you can really show off the highlights (usually the vivid sunlight).

Why is this so important?

Because you are not able to actually paint light. This is sadly one of the limitations of paint. However, with the clever use of the elements available to us, we are able to create a fairly accurate illusion of light.

It is all about relativity.

Because we are not able to hit the vividness of sunlight, we may need to accentuate the dullness and darkness of the surrounding environment. By doing this, we can add power to the sunlight in our painting.

This is why it is so important to build a solid foundation for the highlights in sunset paintings. Without a solid foundation, you will never be able to faithfully represent the sunlight you are trying to paint. It will always look weak and lifeless.

Step 3 – Add The Vivid Highlights

In my opinion, one of the most fascinating parts of painting sunsets of capturing the elusive light with the same level of vividness and brilliance. In a way, this is something which I could never fully achieve. But we can come pretty close if we lay down a solid base of darks and mid-tones.

A few tips for the highlights:

  • Brighter is often more powerful than lighter. Be careful with how much white you are adding to your highlights. The more white you add, the less saturated your colours will be.
  • Try using a palette to apply the highlights in an impasto fashion. This can contrast nicely against a soft foundation of darks and mid-tones.
  • Sometimes less is more with the highlights. The most appropriate highlights could be nothing more than a thin streak of orange to indicate light peaking through clouds.

A Note On Architecture

The tips in this post are mostly for landscapes and seascapes. If you are wanting to paint a cityscape at sunset, then your painting is going to be much more complicated.

At sunset, there is a sharp contrast between lights and darks and long shadows cast on any objects. When architectural elements are involved, the light source may create a complex arrangement of light and shadow which could be challenging to render.

Try not to get caught up in the details and do your best to generalize all the shapes. The painting below is a perfect example of painting a cityscape at sunset.

For Watercolourists

One of the advantages of oil painting (and acrylic painting to an extent) is being able to achieve rich and deep dark and mid-tones. This allows you to create such stunning sunset paintings. But with water colours, your darks and mid-tones may not appear nearly as strong.