How to Paint a Watercolor Sunset (Ultimate Guide)

Sunsets are an exciting subject to pursue in watercolor painting! However, they can be a bit of a challenge, especially for a beginner. In this post, I’m going to take you through the planning process and you’ll learn how to paint a watercolor sunset with 3 different examples.

Let’s get started…

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How to paint a watercolor sunset step by step

How to paint a watercolor sunset? Painting any watercolor sunset can be divided into three steps. Begin by planning your sky, next, choose your colors, and finally, decide which techniques you’ll use to achieve the desired effects.

Each of these steps is explained in detail below along with three different watercolor sunset tutorials.

Materials you’ll need

Here are the materials you’ll need to paint a sunset:

  1. Watercolors
  2. Paper
  3. Brushes 
  4. 2 Jars of water
  5. Paper towel
  6. Pencil/eraser

1. Planning your sky

To plan your sky you’ll need a source of inspiration, this could come from your personal experience watching sunrises. Another channel for inspiration is surfing the internet for sunset images. You could have sunsets with mountains, lakes, the beach, or anything that catches your eye.

Once you have inspiration, you’ll be thinking about composition (how to arrange the elements in your painting in a way that’s pleasing to the eye). This involves where to position the horizon line and what your focal element will be. 

Never position the horizon line exactly in the middle of your painting, either draw it slightly above or below the middle of the paper.

Second, comes the focal element, in sunsets the focal element is usually the sun. You can choose to have a spherical shape or an impression of it by painting a layer of yellow in the area where the sun should be. 

Creating rough pencil sketches is an excellent way to test out different arrangements until you’re satisfied with one.

2. Choosing your colors

The next step to painting your sunset is choosing which colors you’re going to use. There’s no correct answer here, most artists go for shades of orange, red, blue, and purple and sometimes even add hits of gray.

You’ll want to avoid choosing only high-intensity colors. Instead, try opting for a color scheme that has both saturated and slightly muted colors. 

For example, dark clouds sometimes cover the sun and end up with hints of gray or purple-gray. Sometimes you may notice both blue and orange in the sky.

The image below is an example of a sunset. If you look very closely at the clouds towards the right there’s a shift from orange to an almost purple-gray shade. However, it’s so subtle that it can be very easy to miss. This is an example of how you can use different colors in your painting instead of matching the reference image.

I also love using lemon yellow to portray the sunlight and then adding a warmer yellow, like Gamboge around it. (You can see this in the tutorials below).

3. Deciding which techniques to use

Now that you have designed the sky and chosen your colors, it’s time to decide which technique to use to achieve the desired effect.

For a simple watercolor sunset sky, you can begin with the wet-on-wet technique and allow the colors and paint to blend into the sky to produce soft textures. 

Using the wet-on-dry technique will result in too many hard edges which is something you’ll probably want to avoid. Instead, you can use the wet-on-wet technique and leave some areas dry which will produce both soft and hard edges. You can also add some detail by letting the first layer dry and then adding a second layer with wet-on-dry details.

4. Painting a simple watercolor sunset

The painting below is an example of a simple sunset. Here are the colors I used:

  1.  Lemon Yellow (PY3)
  2. Gamboge (PY97, PY110)
  3. Scarlet (PR123)
  4. Ultramarine (PB29)
  5. Prussian Blue (PB27)
  6. Paynes Gray (PB 15, PB29, PBK9)

I started by wetting the paper with clean water and then dropping some lemon yellow along the bottom. I then added hints of Gamboge, making sure not to cover up the lemon yellow underneath.

Next, I mixed a touch of scarlet with gamboge to make yellow-orange and added it above the lemon yellow. I kept blending the colors as I was painting.

I then continued by adding a mixture of Prussian blue and ultramarine along the top of the sky. In this step, gradually lighten the mixture as you move towards the horizon. You can do this by diluting the mixture on your palette. To make the top darker, I added a very small touch of Paynes gray to the blue mixture.

I let the first layer dry completely then added the second layer which was the silhouette of the mountain. I used Paynes Gray for this step. 

That’s how you can paint a simple watercolor sunset sky! You can see the final results in the image below:

This method is great if the sky isn’t the focal point of your painting and you just want to incorporate the sunset into the background.

How to paint a watercolor sunset with many colors

This next painting is an example of how you can use a variety of colors to create a loose impressionistic watercolor sunset. Here are the color mixtures I used:

  1.  Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
  2. Gamboge (PY97, PY110)
  3. Scarlet (PR123) + Ultramarine (PB29) (very small touch)
  4. Q. Rose(PV19) + Ultramarine (PB29)
  5. Ultramarine (PB29) + touch of burnt sienna(PR101)
  6. Cobalt blue(PB28) + Cerulean blue (PB35)

Once again, I started with lemon yellow in the center and added strokes of yellow-orange around it. I then mixed Q.rose with a small touch of lemon yellow to create pink and painted it above the yellow. 

To paint the clouds, mix Ultramarine with a touch of burnt sienna and Rose madder until you get a gray color. You can see how the brush strokes in this sunset are long and slightly curved:

Next, add some blue in between the clouds using a mixture of cobalt blue and cerulean. Once you complete this step it’s time to let the paper dry.

Once the paper was completely dried, I used a large, soft, mop brush and wet the paper with clean water. In this step, you should be careful not to go back and forth with the brush otherwise you’ll pick up any loose pigment.

I then went over the sky using the same colors and made the clouds at the top and some of the pink-purple areas darker.

The last step is to use Payne’s Gray to paint the silhouette of the mountain. Here are the final results:

Painting a sunset with clouds

Although it can be challenging, adding clouds to your sunset will make it much more interesting. With the wet-on-wet technique you can produce beautiful soft fluffy clouds, the key is being able to capture the shifts in color as the clouds move away from the sun.

To paint the smaller clouds which are farther away and closer to the sun you can use a shade of yellow-orange. As long as the color is darker than the sun and lighter than the rest of the sky.

The color of the clouds doesn’t have to be gray, it depends on the sky you are painting sometimes you could have a purple-gray or cool red…etc

Colors used:

For this sunset painting, here are the colors I used:

  1.  Prussian blue(PB27) + touch of Paynes Gray (PB15, PB29, PBK9)
  2. Hansa Yellow Light(PY3) (same as lemon yellow)
  3. Gamboge(PY97, PY110)
  4. Scarlet (PR123) + Ultramarine (PB29)
  5. Q. Rose(PV19) + a small touch of lemon yellow(PY3) (to make pink) 
  6.  Ultramarine (PB29) + Q. Rose (PV19) + touch of Burnt Sienna (PR101)
  7. Scarlet (PR123) + Ultramarine (PB29)

Step-by-step tutorial:

The first step is to wet the paper with clean water. Next, paint the blue area of the sky from dark to light starting at the top of the paper. For this, I used a mixture of Prussian blue with a touch of Paynes gray. I also made sure to avoid the areas where the sunlight will be.

To paint the sunlight I used Lemon Yellow (PY3) in the middle then added Gamboge around the lemon yellow. I made sure to leave a space where the clouds will be.

While the paper is still wet, add in strokes of Quinacridone Rose (PV19) mixed with a touch of Lemon Yellow (PY3) to make a light pink. With the point of your brush paint small strokes around the yellow sunlight. Leave some spaces in between strokes.

I then mixed a muted gray using scarlet(PR123) and Ultramarine(PB29) to paint some darker clouds above the pink ones.

As you move away from the sunlight, the clouds become more blue-gray. I used this mixture to make gray:

Ultramarine (PB29) + Q. Rose (PV19) + touch of Burnt Sienna (PR101)

I then added some clouds around the sides of the purple-gray clouds. Notice how I’m painting small strokes with some spaces in between. I then diluted the mixture and added some lighter clouds above.

Once you finish the clouds, let the paper dry completely. I then added a final layer to make the top of the sky darker, using the same mixture of Prussian blue + Paynes Gray. 

Finally, it’s time to paint the silhouette of the mountain. I used a  saturated mixture of Scarlet and Paynes gray to do this.

Here is the final result:

FAQ

What colors are in a sunset?

There’s no set color scheme for a sunset. Sometimes the light bounces off the clouds and creates violet hues. Most of the time you’ll have colors ranging in the red, orange, and yellow family. However, you can still have other hues. If you’re unsure of what colors to use you can always use your reference image as a guide.

Can you add blue in a watercolor sunset?

Yes, you can! Painting a sunset doesn’t mean you only use colors ranging between red, orange, and yellow. Many professional watercolor painters use blue to paint the very top of the sky, giving the painting a sense of depth. If you take a look at some sunset images you’ll also see the top of the sky is blue and the yellow is concentrated closer to the horizon.

How many layers should you paint in a watercolor sunset?

If you add too many layers to your sky then you risk ending up with an overworked or muddy painting. It’s best to plan and use 1-3 layers. I usually use one or two layers for most of my paintings.

Where is the sun positioned in a sunset painting?

Most of the time, if the sky takes up the majority of the painting, the sunlight is usually painted closer to the horizon. It also depends on how far you zoom out the sunset in your painting. If the sun is closer then it will take up most of the sky.

Does the paper you’re using matter when painting a watercolor sunset?

The type of paper you’re using will make a huge difference! Using cotton paper will give you enough time to make changes and add second layers to your sky. This is because 100% cotton paper is more durable and absorbent. You can learn more by reading my article about the different types of watercolor paper.

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