Thursday, January 03, 2013

Painting Sunsets

Here is a question emailed to me and I thought I'd answer it here. It's from Lynn in Sikeston, MO.

Lynn says, "I have a question on sunset paintings.  Each evening on my way home from work, I watch these beautiful sunsets with vivid colors.  Silhouetted against the sky, the trees and buildings seem very dark, but I cannot find the color answer to paint them.  While they appear very dark, painted dark looks very harsh and unbelievable.  Any advice?"
The subject of sunsets is often selected by students when I do workshops. Generally, I'd say stay away from doing them but if tackling the subject I try and remember a few things.

1. Try and make notes of color either mental or better yet with a very quick thumbnail sketch on location to record the colors in the sky and use those color notes when doing the painting.

2. Remember that when using a photograph of a sunset, the camera will not see even a small portion of the colors that the eye can see in real life especially when looking at a high contrast subject such as a sunset. The photo will either wash out the sky colors and leave you with the land portion exposed correctly OR if the camera is exposed for the sky, the photo will leave you with a black landscape. Chances are you aren't going to get a good exposure on the sky and the land in one shot. This puts any artist at a disadvantage when painting from a photo.

3. I never use black on a sunset painting. A sunset painting is all about color and black will kill it. I use a mix of transparent colors such as alizarin crimson and thalo blue or ultramarine blue to give a very dark color. I stay away from using any opaque colors when trying to make these darks or at least I might use them very sparingly. For instance maybe a small touch of burnt sienna in the dark areas as in the painting below. When I use black it is always to make a color greyer and not necessarily darker.

4. Remember the landscape becomes very secondary in most sunset paintings and usually ends up as silhouette. Detail usually becomes soft.


5. Consider doing a sunset painting before the last minute of sunset when the landscape still has more light on it. Here's an example of that.

6. I try and stay away from bright colors when painting a landscape. Maybe a touch or two of a pure color is fine but using too many pure colors will give the painting a false and harsh look like the one below.
7. Remember that a sunset painting needs more to it than a horizontal line across the center and some clouds and sun at the top half. It needs to have a subject and just dividing the picture up into those two areas like the photo above leaves the viewer with little or no real interest or subject matter to enjoy. There are always lots of people at the beach at sunset taking such photos but a good photo or painting needs more than a split screen of sky and water. It's also not a good idea to divide the canvas right in the middle.