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Secrets to Painting Sunsets and Water Reflections

I teach classes in painting sunsets, both in the studio and en plein air. No surprise that I LOVE painting sunsets and the rich chroma that streaks the skies along with the deep long shadows during the "Golden Hour" right before sunset.

Artists just starting out, always want to capture the fleeting light of the sunset, and often ask me for tips. Here's some general "rules of thumb" to remember about painting sunsets. Below are the demo paintings from my class in Painting Sunsets and Water Reflection at Dunedin Fine Art Center.

1. Paint from Back-to-Front instead of Dark-to-Light when painting a sunset as your

sky is usually overlapped by all the other elements of the composition. It's much harder to make a graduated blend in the sky if you have the wave painted! Instead, paint the sky first, and put the wave on top...

2. Light Logic-As the sun sets, the light logically highlights waves & clouds in lines.

Objects facing the light will be illuminated by that light, facing away from the

light will be in shadow. In the above example, the wave crest reflects the light, the trough is in shadow and the flat part of the water reflects the sky.

3. Layer and blend those layers to create light! If you are using paint, use a fan brush

or a large soft (3”) brush to create a graduated blend in the sky. If you are using

pastel, use stripes of color and blend to create a graduated blend-which is what I did here behind the wave.

4. Texture is the best way to create water vapor or clouds. Notice the smooth texture of the sky, linear texture of the waves, and rough texture of the froth and rocks? Those differences are all textural and help create the illusion of depth.

5. Remember Rules of Perspective!

Clouds-are thinner at the horizon, and thicker at the top

Waves-are thinner at the horizon and thicker at the bottom

Sky-lighter at the horizon and darker overhead

6. Three ways to create the illusion of perspective and depth in a painting:

-Color temperature, warm colors come forward, cool colors recede (when painting a sunset, your sun will be warm, as will the sky, so bring some dark warm into the foreground)

-Texture, make the foreground rough, middle-ground a different texture and background smooth. (check out the waves in both examples)

-Value, lighter colors recede in the distance, darkest colors come forward and

should be used in the foreground. If you have a dark in the distance it will

“flatten” your painting.

My examples here are all in pastel, but I did the same paintings in acrylic as demonstrations for the class. These rules are not medium-specific. Its very important that you spend some time studying your subject, watch the sunset, see how light fades, how it touches different parts of waves, and how wet sand reflects the sky. The more you understand the light logic in a scene, the easier it is to paint it.

Looking for a challenging next class?

If you live in Florida, join me for Painting Palm Trees starting at Dunedin Fine Art Center in two weeks PT214 or Pastel Portraits PA108.

If you are looking for a fun online class; try "Colorful Compositions in Complementary Palettes" with me starting next weds.

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5 comentários

WOW 🤩 So much info to process! Thank you so very’s a course in itself! Will try printing it to read and reread to self educate myself! Have yourself a Happy Easter 🐣

Respondendo a


You are so smart, Shawn. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and talents with us❤️🎨


Bonnie Rapchak
Bonnie Rapchak
03 de abr. de 2021

I loved the class and will probably take it agin 🧜‍♀️

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