Skip to main content

How to paint sunsets: Create the perfect coloured sky

How to paint sunsets
(Image credit: Rob Lunn)

Learning how to paint sunsets will elevate your landscape art. But capturing the beauty of a real sunset isn't an easy task. With complex colours working together, balancing them perfectly isn't easy. How do you create something that feels both realistic and richly eye-catching?

This post offers some top tips on how to use colour to create a beautiful sunset. We'll be using oil paints, but the premise is the same across a range of media – so be sure to call upon this guide when you're creating a sunset in any form. Want to learn more about using colours well? Try our guide to colour theory. Or, if you're working with pencils, you'll need our pick of the best pencils around. And see here for more oil painting techniques.

01. Get the blue just right

How to paint sunsets: Blues

Top to bottom: Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Titanium White No.1, Bright Yellow Lake (Image credit: Rob Lunn)

The blue sky in this landscape sits above all the drama happening below, so it was important to get just the right mix. The blue sky is also reflected in the pool, so it had to sit well with its surrounding sky and land colours to look authentic. I took some Ultramarine Blue and tinted it down with Titanium White No.1. I wanted to add violet tones so I mixed in a little Alizarin Crimson. The blue of the sky also leaned towards the greens so I added a little Bright Yellow Lake to subtly shift it in that direction.

02. Mix the perfect pink

How to paint sunsets: Pinks

Top to bottom: Scarlet Lake, Titanium White No.1, Bright Yellow Lake (Image credit: Rob Lunn)

As the sun gets lower in the sky, the rays of light have more atmosphere to travel through to reach your eyes. This tends to filter out more of the violets and blues, creating beautiful peachy-pink skies as in our subject. To re-create this peachy-pink, I mixed Scarlet Lake with Titanium White No.1. When mixing tints, add the dominant colour to the white, rather than adding white to the dominant colour – you'll save a lot of white paint. I then 'peached-up' my pink by adding small amounts of Bright Yellow Lake until I was I happy.

03. Balance with deep shadows

How to paint sunsets: Shadows

Top to bottom: Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Bright Yellow Lake (Image credit: Rob Lunn)

In a painting with such high notes of extreme colour, the composition needs to be anchored and balanced with dark, deep tones. I decided to increase harmony by combining a lot of these into one deep violet. Remember that these deep, dark tones needs to be desaturated with their complementary colour – in this case, Bright Yellow Lake. I didn't want to go all the way to black, so I started with my warmer blue, Ultramarine. I then added Alizarin Crimson to create my violet and Bright Yellow Lake to grey it down.

04. Add gold to the grass

How to paint sunsets: Gold

Top to bottom: Scarlet Lake, Yellow Lake, Titanium White No.1, Phthalo Blue Lake (Image credit: Rob Lunn)

One of the strongest colours in the foreground, and counterpoint to the deep shadows, is the sunset kissing the foliage around the pool. I wanted this to be bright and sing out, but it's easy to go in too light and too high in saturation. I started off mixing Scarlet Lake with Yellow Lake to create a strong and warm orange. As Scarlet Lake is the dominant colour, I greyed it down using Phthalocyanine Blue Lake to create a strong desaturation while retaining a good, warm orange. Offer up your palette knife to your painting to see how your mix looks next its surrounding colours before you commit with a brush.

05. Cool things down with green

How to paint sunsets: Green

Top to bottom: Ultramarine Blue, Bright Yellow Lake, Alizarin Crimson (Image credit: Rob Lunn)

One of the strongest colours in the foreground, and counterpoint to the deep shadows, is the sunset kissing the foliage around the pool. I wanted this to be bright and sing out, but it's easy to go in too light and too high in saturation. I started off mixing Scarlet Lake with Yellow Lake to create a strong and warm orange. As Scarlet Lake is the dominant colour, I greyed it down using Phthalocyanine Blue Lake to create a strong desaturation while retaining a good, warm orange. Offer up your palette knife to your painting to see how your mix looks next its surrounding colours before you commit with a brush.

This content originally appeared in Paint & Draw: Oils. You can buy the Oils bookazine here. Or explore the rest of the Paint & Draw bookazines.

Read more:

Rob Lunn is a self-taught painter, and loves to paint in oils. His influences are Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio and Ilya Repin. He has taught art workshops since 2012.