An incredible sunset, really makes you stop in awe and marvel at the beauty of the light and colour. To capture this in a painting, it’s best to break down the composition into sections so you can build up layers of colour.
This blog post provides a detailed breakdown of the sunset painting tutorial, perfect for ambitious beginner artists looking to take their skills to the next level. You’ll learn how to mix a palette as vibrant as a real sunset, select the right brushes, and layer and blend paint to create a stunningly realistic piece. But don’t just take our word for it, dive in!
Disclaimer: Fine Art Tutorials is a reader supported site. When you make purchases through links on this site, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Watch the sunset painting video tutorial
Supplies to create a sunset painting
You can complete this tutorial with oil or acrylic paints, as the techniques are the same. However, acrylic paint dries much faster than oil paint, so make sure to use an open medium to increase the open working time of the paint if you are using acrylic. This will enable you to blend the sky tones for longer to create softer edges.
The materials I recommend getting are:
Sunset painting tips
Before we get started with the steps of the tutorial, it’s important to keep some fundamental tips in mind when painting.
- Blocking In Technique: This initial step involves painting the broad colours and tones of the composition. You can refine the edges and details at a later stage by blending or layering fine lines on top of the blocked in layer.
- Blending Technique: This is an essential step for creating smooth transitions between different colours or light and shadow conditions. Always blend your paint while it’s still wet on the canvas to attain a seamless gradient.
- Mixing Colours: It’s advisable to mix some of your colours before you start painting. Having a palette of pre-mixed colours allows for consistency and speed as you progress with your painting. Always remember, a little paint goes a long way, so start with small amounts and adjust as necessary and then mix transitional shades as you go.
- Environment Setup: Ensure that your work area is well-lit, preferably with natural light, and that all your materials are readily accessible before you start. This will allow you to focus on the painting process without interruptions.
Sunset Painting Tutorial: Steps
Step 1: Create the sky gradient
The sky transitions from a pale yellow at the top, to a warm red at the horizon on the left hand side of the composition. To create this gradient, I start with a pale yellow, which is a high proportion of titanium white, with a small dot of cadmium yellow, then gradually add in small amounts of yellow and red. The red I use is Quinacridone Magenta, which is a nice cool primary red, that you can also use to create neutral purples in the cloud tones.
I work by painting small areas at a time, creating lots of transitional shades. This way, I can blend a smoother gradient for the sky.
Mixing red into the yellow, make sure to keep adding white until you have your desired brightness, hold the palette knife up against the reference to test if it’s close to the colour you want to create.
If you’re new to colour mixing, there will be some tweaking involved, to adjust the tones to make sure they’re accurate.
Step 2: Paint the light around the sun
The sun is the centre point of the composition. First I painted the surrounding clouds and brightest parts of the sky.
Underneath where the sun will go is the brightest and purest orange tone in the painting. Then use a lighter orange yellow colour for the stretch which will appear in between the two clouds on the right hand side.
I first outline where the clouds will go, rather than jump into painting the clouds at this early stage. Then I blend out these colours to create the gradient effect. I use a goat mop brush to blend.
Step 3: Paint the sun
Dot in the centre of the sky with titanium white where you want the sun to go. I’m measuring halfway along the horizon to find the centre point. The sun is the lightest section of the painting and is therefore represented with just a dot of titanium white. All colours surrounding it are off white from the diffused light of the sun.
Step 4: Outline the clouds around the sun
There’s variation in tones above where the light from the sun is passing through the clouds. The edges of the clouds are illuminated with a light yellow tone. The further away from the sun the light appears, the slightly more off-white it becomes. Only the centre of the light source is pure titanium white. You can see that there are two clouds either side of the sun covering parts of the brightest light areas. Paint some of the bright white yellow colour just above and below the sun to show the clouds blocking the sun’s light.
Use the lightest yellow and white mix on your palette to make the colours transition together smoothly, then if you need to, you can blend any edges out in the sky to make a seamless gradient.
Step 5: Paint the clouds
The clouds are dark compared to the sky tones. The cloud mix is purple, so we’ll mix quite a bit of magenta, a lesser amount of cadmium yellow to neutralise the purple, ultramarine and small dot of burnt umber to neutralise the blue. Go easy on the ultramarine and the burnt umber, as you don’t want to darken the mix too quickly. The result will be a deep, reddish purple tone. Then add a little white to lighten it. The resulting colour will be the darkest section of the clouds. To lighten it, I’ll mix this dark mix with some of the lighter sky tone mixes already on the palette. This creates soft and blurred edges in the clouds.
Thinner wisps of clouds let light pass through. For these tones, I mix a higher proportion of the red colour from the horizon of the sky, to give the appearance of transparency. Because I’m using the wet on wet technique, the colours are blending into one another, giving a softer appearance on the cloud’s edges.
To balance the composition, to make the clouds appear more symmetrical, I added a final cloud on the horizon. I’m using the same techniques as before, starting with the lighter colour that has been mixed with the red sky colour, then layering a more opaque looking purple, where the cloud has a higher density on top.
I blended all the cloud shapes with the goat mop brush. It’s helpful to clean the brush of paint residue with a paper towel as you go, so it’s relatively clean and dry. I also made sure to blend lighter colours first, so I didn’t muddy the light colours.
Step 6: Paint highlights around the clouds
The final steps of painting this wonderful tangerine sky, are to add some brighter, more saturated mid tones, highlights and details. I painted some lighter orange tones around the edge of the clouds, which are diffusing the light near the sun.
The highlights around the sun are the brightest highlights in the sky, apart from the sun itself. These highlights add more dimension and bring more contrast to the clouds. The highlights are yellow and orange, that are slightly tinting the bright, titanium white pigment. I’m using a liner brush to create ultra thin lines around the clouds. I made the paint runnier with some linseed oil, so that it spreads further and layers over the thinner paint.
As I go I blend the hard edges out, making sure not to over blend, so as not to lose the definition in the highlights. The highlights are a real mix of oranges and yellows, that appear saturated against the darker clouds. This sky section is done, so it’s time to move onto painting the sea.
Step 7: Block in the sea colours
I started painting the sea by loosely blocking in some of the broader tones. It may look a little strange and abstract at first, but it will start to take shape as it progresses.
The left hand side of the sea is reflecting a lighter area of sky. So I’m blocking that side in with a neutral yellow shade, to work on top of. The yellow is a mix of cadmium yellow, burnt umber, titanium white and a little bit of ultramarine to further neutralise the mix. The right hand side of the ocean is darker, so I’ll paint a purple tone to work on top of. I’m using the same colour that I did for the darker cloud shade. That is a mix of magenta, ultramarine, burnt umber and a little bit of cadmium yellow to neutralise the colour.
The middle of the ocean is reflecting the sunlight, so I painted a bright yellow shade in horizontal sweeping motions, to simulate wave textures. Reflected light on water usually appears darker than the source, so I painted a mix of cadmium yellow that I mixed with titanium white and neutralised with the smallest amount of burnt umber. Closer to the viewer, the waves appear bigger and zig zag to the shore, so I’ll paint the reflected light in broader strokes.
Step 8: Create ripples
I’m painting the distant ripples on the left hand side with the darker grey I used on the right hand side of the composition. Using the edge of a flat brush, I’m painting horizontal lines in organic patterns, the waves slightly swell in the middle, then taper at each end. Distant waves appear shorter, so you can use shorter strokes with the brush to create them.
The darkest part of the painting is where a wave is blocking the light close to the shore. To mix this colour, I used ultramarine, magenta and burnt umber to create a purple-black shade. There are multiple waves rolling over one another, I so I’m leaving some space to blend in the lighter grey tone to show where the light is being reflected off the top of these waves.
I’m continuing to use a dark blue mix to create ripples near the horizon and the mid grey for the distant ripples on the left hand side of the piece. I’ve created some small ripple details on the left hand side with the darker blue tone, blending it into the mid grey. Creating a sense of realism is all about including select details that add variety and draw attention to the texture of the waves. As I go, I blend out any hard edges so that the ripples seamlessly blend into one another.
Step 9: Paint the highlights on the waves
Firstly, I add some warmer, red tones near the centre of the reflection, on top of the waves, blending it into the yellow tones in the middle. This colour is similar to the reddish horizon colour of the sky. However, it has a little extra ultramarine to cool and darken the mix. I use the edge of a flat brush to create the thin ripples.
The next step is to work in some more highlight tones, ranging from bright yellow orange to the mid tone red. The reflected light on the wave from the sun is showing as these high chroma tones, turning the sea into a rainbow of colours. These tones are highly saturated, so they are pure magenta, cadmium yellow and white.
Finally, I added the brightest highlights on the waves, directly below the sun, where the light is being reflected. This mix was a high proportion of titanium white with a small dot of cadmium yellow. I used short motions with a liner brush, to create these small section of reflections. This adds an extra pop of contrast that makes the piece look finished.
Extended Sunset Painting Ideas
Have you ever considered painting a serene pastel sunset over a rolling wave? The blend of warm and cool tones playing off each other can create a sense of tranquility and depth. Start by painting a sky filled with hues of blush pink, yellow and peach. These pastel shades will contrast beautifully against the cool blue of the wave. Let the wave reflect the sky’s colours, adding some darker shades of blue for contrast and depth. Use sweeping brush strokes to indicate the wave’s motion and texture.
Another idea is to explore a sunset in the desert, where the setting sun casts long shadows over the sand dunes. The stark contrast between the warm tones of the sand and the cooling sky can create a sense of solitude and tranquility. Remember to pay attention to the light and shade, which will bring a three-dimensional feel to your painting.
Alternatively, you could try painting a cityscape at sunset. The silhouettes of the buildings against the colourful backdrop of the setting sun can create a striking image. Use shades of orange and red to show the sun’s glow reflecting off the glass windows of the buildings.
Each of these ideas will allow you to explore different aspects of sunset painting, helping to expand your skills and artistic expression. And if you’re interested in painting the ocean during the midday hours, you’ll need to switch your palette to one of deep blues. Explore painting a tropical ocean wave in our blog!
If you’re looking for more ideas, check out our canvas painting ideas blog. In it, find an assortment of projects that explore a variety of painting styles and techniques.