There are as many hues in a sunset as there are colors of the spectrum. Interpreting the sky at day’s end can be a challenge. Some sunsets are so supernatural that to paint them as you see them would lead viewers to question your sobriety.
These basics address rules that can apply to most situations. However, artistic license, being what it is, a watercolor artist may have a sunset as gaudy as a Hawaiian shirt or as smooth as velvet drapes.
One incontrovertible truth is that the horizon line is straight and horizontal across water. If you are painting a sunset over water, your horizon line should appear as such.
Anywhere else, all bets are off. The horizon is a focal point in any setting, and should be well considered in the composition of the work. It may not have high priority, but will anchor your center of interest. If it is uncomfortable, the painting may not be as successful as it could be.
You can see every color in the spectrum during different sunsets. Some evenings there are soft lavenders, yellows and pinks. Other days there may be bold, striking magentas, blues and purples.
An artist can paint a hundred sunsets and never paint the same one twice. Some combinations are more challenging to create with watercolor. It is not easy to progress from blue to yellow without first encountering green. The same can be said of yellow to pink, without orange.
Practice and artistic license are keywords here.
The artist has great flexibility in color choices for a sunset. This may be a good time to do some samples of how potential color choices blend. When the paints have been selected, it is time to put brush to paper and watch the sun set.
Skies should be painted wet-in-wet. This is done loosely, with a large brush for a painterly effect. Using a too-small brush will only cause the beginner to dawdle over an area and lose the spontaneity necessary for a pleasing picture.
The student should have his paints set up in advance so that there is no need to stop to retrieve other colors. Work while the paper is moist and re-wet if necessary. Have a spray bottle filled with water handy if an area becomes too dry.
Plan where there will be white areas of clouds and avoid putting any color in those locations. They may disappear in the end, but white cannot be reclaimed once it has color on it.
A sky may be a cloudless transition from color to color or it can be busy with a dozen puffs floating by.
If an area of the sunset starts to fail, do not despair. A sky can be calm or jam-packed with activity. Just move on and come back to it later.
At worst case, a tree or mountain may just appear to blot it out!
The sky may or may not have a sun in it. If it is in residence, the portion visible above the horizon should be round. Colors may blend in and out freely, obscuring the outline, but the initial shape should be spherical.
Work from light to dark. Start with the yellows and pinks, if they are to play a part in the composition. A sky is a place where happy accidents abound. Take advantage of little surprises and work with them.
The sky lightens as it nears the horizon. This comes as a surprise to some beginning art students. Observe the way the color changes from dark overhead to a much lighter tone as it nears the horizon line. This may not be evident on cloudy or stormy days, but in general is a good rule to remember.
The sky will have very few hard edges. If dramatic clouds play a part of the picture, pay special consideration to their edges. If they look like postage stamps pasted in place, soften the edges. This helps the edges to recede and become less eye-catching.
Black is not a Color
Black is not a color for use in skies. In fact, a student watercolorist would be wise not to purchase black paint. A student should learn to create black from the paints in their tabouret. The shadows of clouds should be comprised of the complementary colors of your palette.
When the preliminary view is completed, there may be additional refining to finish the overall painting. The sky is not an area for detail work. Overworking a sky will give it a counterfeit look and not be convincing.
Artists work from reference materials to help them observe and capture specific details of their subjects. In the case of skies and sunsets, reference materials are useful for mass, size, tone and general colors. Since there is so much latitude in what passes for a convincing day’s end, the observant student can quickly learn to paint a pleasant sunset.