How to paint an ocean sunset

How to Paint an Ocean Sunset

There is something undeniably peaceful and calming about painting an ocean sunset. The warm oranges, yellows, blues, and greys blend together to create beautifully soft clouds, ripples and pastel coloured waves, perfect for your next painting project.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to paint an ocean sunset with oil paints.

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Paint an ocean sunset: Video tutorial

Follow along with the sunset ocean painting video tutorial!

Paint an ocean sunset: Step by step

Mix the sky colours

Mix sunset sky colours

To start off, mix up some of the sky colours. For this painting, I have used a split primary palette of Cranfield Artists’ Oil Colours. The colours I have used are: Titanium White, Burnt Umber, Naphthol Vermillion, Bright Yellow Lake, Magenta, Yellow Lake and Phthalo Blue.

Cranfield oil paints are incredibly luscious and buttery to work with and the colour mixes that the paints make are vibrant and pure.

The sky appears as a pastel gradient, so I mixed five different colours, all containing a large amount of Titanium White. For the pastel orange colour on the left of the palette, I added Yellow Lake to the Titanium White, along with a small amount of Naphthol Vermillion to create an orange tone. The next colour along, the pastel yellow colour, was a large proportion of Titanium White, with a small amount of Yellow Lake and a tiny hint of Naphthol Vermillion.

Next, the paler yellow tone is a mix of a larger proportion of titanium white compared to yellow lake. To make the light grey colour, I mixed Titanium White, with a smaller amount of Phthalo Blue and Burnt Umber. This grey will form the cloud at the top of the composition. The warm tone of the Burnt Umber neutralises the cool tone of the blue, creating a grey colour.

Finally, to create a muted yellow tone, I mixed some of the grey colour with some of the light yellow colour on the palette. This will work to create a transitional shade between the cloud and sky.

Paint the altostratus cloud

Paint the cloud

Altostratus clouds are thin, mid level clouds that allow part of the sun’s light to shine through. They partially block the light but are featureless in appearance. This muted cloud adds variation to the composition, contrasting with the vibrant pastel gradient of the sky. The cloud appears as a thin strip at the top, so mix some grey and light yellow to make a light grey colour on your brush and paint it across the top section of the canvas. Because the cloud is thin, it blends into the tones of the sky. Mix some transitional shades by mixing the grey with a little orange to create a soft edge between the cloud and sky. Use this colour to paint the sky on the left and mix the grey with the light yellow to make a transitional shade beneath the cloud on the right of the canvas.

Create the sunset sky gradient

Paint the sunset sky gradient

The next step is to paint the most colourful section of the piece. The painting is a luminous yellow in the middle, which transitions to pastel orange around the edge of the cloud at the bottom of the sky. To paint this, I lined the edge of the bottom cloud with the orange colour. Next, I mixed the orange with the pastel yellow colour to make a transitional shade, to create the appearance of a smoother gradient. Then I painted the bright yellow colour in the middle of the sky section and lightly blended the colours together with a soft, clean brush.

Paint the cloud on the horizon

Paint a sunset stratus cloud

To finish the sky section of the piece, I painted a stratus cloud on the horizon. I block in the shape with a filbert brush, which has a round edge that blends the edge of the cloud with the sky to create a soft appearance.

To line the horizon, you could use a piece of masking tape to make a more accurate straight edge. Or use the edge of the brush and carefully paint along the edge. I mapped out where I wanted the horizon line to sit before starting the painting, with a pencil and a ruler, drawing a straight line halfway down the panel.

Detail smaller clouds at the top

Small clouds details

I used the edge of the filbert brush and medium grey colour to detail some smaller clouds at the top. To create an organic appearance in the clouds, vary the pressure on the brush to create thicker and thinner sections. I then blended the clouds out with a mop brush, so that the edges look soft against the sky.

Paint the distant sea colour

Distant sea sunset painting

The next step in the process is to block in the base colour of the distant sea. The sea reflects the hues of the sky, however, it appears darker and more muted in tone. Cover the strip of bare canvas to around 2/3 from the bottom, to leave space for the wave and sand. The colours I used for the sky mix were Yellow Lake, Naphthol Red, Phthalo Blue, Titanium White and Burnt Umber. To create harmonious mixes, you can use colours already on your palette to create new tones. For instance, I mixed the cloud grey that I had already mixed in with the pastel orange tone to create the new darker ocean colour.

Detail the ocean ripples

Ocean sunset ripples

The ocean ripples are a darker teal colour, which I mixed with Phthalo Blue, Burnt Umber and lightened with the pastel yellow colour that was already on the palette.

To create the ripple effect, I used the alla prima technique, (painting on wet paint) so that the edges of the colours blend into one another. Then I added some linseed oil medium to the teal paint to make it more fluid, so I could achieve the thin, fine details. I used a red sable rigger brush for the ripples, as it has long, soft bristles that taper to a point, perfect for painting lines. Alternatively, you could use a round brush to achieve a similar effect.

To make the lines look organic, vary the size and shape slightly and vary the pressure placed on the brush. Make the ripples look thicker in the middle compared to the outer edges and cluster them together. Painting ripples is a case of repeating the lining motion, until the whole distant strip of ocean has been filled.

Block in the wave colours

Wave colours

Next I blocked in the base colours of the barrel of the wave. I used the same colour for the wave as the distant ripples, but added some Bright Yellow Lake to make it appear more turquoise in tone. The blocked in layer can sometimes appear rough and messy, as the details will be refined later on in the painting.

In the barrel of the wave, beneath where it is curling at the top, some of the sand from the bottom of the ocean is being pulled up and is blocking the light. This appears a darker green in colour. For this I added some Burnt Umber, Phthalo Blue and Yellow Lake Bright to the mix and blended it into the wave on the left hand side.

Block in the sea foam colours

Sea foam blocking in

The colours of the sea foam are muted blue-grey. Create this colour with Titanium White, Phthalo Blue and Burnt Umber. Make sure to use more Titanium White compared to the other colours and more Phthalo Blue compared to Burnt Umber to achieve the cool tone. I also added a small amount of magenta to achieve the purplish tint, that contrasts to the yellow in the distant ocean colour.

Paint the foam at the bottom of the wave and leave some space for where the sand will go at the bottom of the canvas. To create the shadow tone of the sea foam, mix in some of the deep green colour to the sea foam colour to darken it. Then line underneath where the foam is casting shadows.

Paint the sand

Paint the sand

The sand in the scene is wet and is therefore reflecting the colours of the sky. I mixed the orange and yellow sky tones with a little bit of burnt umber to darken them slightly, then painted a gradient of yellow to orange at the bottom of the canvas.

Wave details

wave details

To paint the details, I mixed some fresh turquoise and teal colours. Using the pigments Phthalo Blue, Yellow Lake Bright, Titanium White and Burnt Umber, I mixed a bright saturated turquoise, a darker more muted teal, a light highlight tone and a green tone. The dark turquoise had more burnt umber compared to the other colours and the light tone had more titanium white. I also added some linseed oil to make the paint more fluid so I could layer the details on top of the wet paint.

Highlights and shadows of wave

As well as adding details, I increased the contrast of the wave by adding highlights and shadows. I deepened the colour of the wave with the turquoise and teal colours, then added some highlights along the barrel of the wave with the highlight tone. I also increased the intensity of the shadow of the green where the wave curls. To soften the details and make them appear more realistic, I lightly blended them out.

Add highlights and shadows to sea foam

Foam Shadows

The shadows of the foam are a grey-blue colour. I mixed this with Phthalo Blue, Burnt Umber, Magenta and white. Use a round or filbert brush to detail where the foam is casting shadow, underneath the barrel of the wave and where the foam meets the sand.

Foam highlights

To create the highlights, mix the foam colour with titanium white. Use a round or rigger brush to detail sections of the foam. Use the white colour to dot splashes of foam around the edge of the wave to create further definition. The highlights on the foam beneath the wave have organic curving lines, that blend into the shadows. Use a blending brush to lightly blend out these highlights, to make them appear softer against the shadows.

Sunset wave oil painting

Once the highlights have been blended slightly, the wave will look more realistic! This is the finished painting, so all that’s left to do is to wait for it to dry, then varnish it.

Supplies to paint an ocean sunset


If you want to learn how to paint a tropical ocean wave, check out our other seascape painting tutorial. For artists relatively new to oil painting, we have a complete beginner’s guide on how to get started.