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Art Masterclass - 106

How to Paint Sunsets with Steve Strode

Steve Strode - Posted on Tue 14 Jul 2015

How to Paint Sunsets with Steve Strode

When I think of the colour orange, I think of warm light and sunsets, and that golden glow in the sky at the end of the day. Exploring sunsets by artists such as Turner or Monet, and their atmospheric interpretations in beautiful colours and tones, can often inspire me to create my own. So why not join me and see how I tackle the basics of painting a sunset in acrylic before you set off and try one for yourself?

Both of the paintings shown in this article (First Light, acrylic on paper, (28x33cm), left, and St Just, acrylic on paper, (29x29cm), below)  came about from using various resources, including colour studies, photographs, written notes and drawings gathered at the scene. No two skies are the same, and while there is no steadfast formula for mixing the colours and working quickly from life, here are guidelines to point you in the right direction.

Demonstration St Just

How to Paint Sunsets with Steve Strode
  • You will need


    • 200gsm watercolour paper, (29x29cm)


    • Cadmium red
    • Crimson red
    • Cadmium yellow
    • Lemon yellow
    • Ultramarine blue
    • Cobalt blue
    • Cerulean blue


    • Hog hair No. 12 & 6


    • Painting knife
    •  2B pencil

    * I use Daler-Rowney System 3 or Winsor & Newton Galeria acrylics

  • Step One

    Using a soft 2B pencil, make a drawing that is just light enough for you to see. Mask off the perimeter with tape, which you can remove at the end to reveal a clean white border.

  • Step Two

    Using a damp No. 10 hog hair brush, scumble a thin coat of French ultramarine and cobalt blue into the sky. Cool this with cerulean blue and white as it nears the horizon. Fade to pure white to make a clean surface for the sunset colours to follow. Remember that blues become lighter as they approach the horizon.

  • Step Three

    1. Using thicker paint, suggest a white sun near the centre of the horizon.

    2. By adding cadmium yellow then cadmium red to make a graduated orange as it moves outward from the sun, it avoids a flat uniform look and makes it interesting. Add white to lighten the tones a little. It’s easier to make a light section dark than it is to make a dark section light. If it’s on the palette, it usually ends up on the painting so placing this clean strip of orange in the initial stages makes sense.

    3. Take the sunset colours up to meet the blue. In theory, the thicker paint avoids the yellow content in the orange, turning green where it covers the blue; I’ve left thinner paint at the edges to illustrate this. Thin paint acts like a glaze allowing the underpainting to show through. Don’t worry if this happens, as these edges will be covered with thicker paint when we add clouds later.

    4. Suggest the horizon of a distant sea with cerulean and white.

  • Step Four

    1. Add complementary ultramarine blue to the orange to make a dark tone for the roof and windows of the house. Add more blue and white to the edge of this dark mix to make the lighter tone of the cottage.

    2. Lay a little orange yellow in one of the windows with the back end of the brush.

    3. Add cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue to the dark mix on your palette until you have a subdued dark green. Use it to run a hedge across the whole painting and suggest trees beside the house.

    4. Lighten this mix with more cadmium yellow and white to block in the field

  • Step Five

    Block in the cows with a watery transparent mix of lemon yellow, crimson red and a touch of ultramarine blue and a smaller No. 6 hog hair brush. Paint up to the edge and meet it with more green to shape the animals.

  • Step Six

    1. When this is dry, use those same colours in a thicker darker mix to paint just short of the cows’ edges, leaving the lighter colour as a rim of light. Complementary pairs do more than create dramatic impact; when mixed together each has the ability to subdue or neutralise the other. Objects silhouetted in the foreground will be very dark in tone, but are unlikely to be totally black.

    2. To make a darker version of the orange, try adding more blue. Don’t lose sight of the local colour; aim for a really dark brown.

    3. The same rule applies when painting the field. Adjust the tone of the grass by adding complementary crimson. This green goes darker still when you suggest the shadows on the cows, which are not black, but a dark green. This shadow anchors them to the field.

  • Step Seven

    1. Use the knife loosely to add foreground green. With the block-in complete, assess the tones and edges as you work more within the shapes, and start relating them together as a whole.

    2. Mix up a dark colour and suggest telegraph poles on the horizon.

  • Step Eight

    1. Keeping the paint thick, work into the sky with varying ratios of cadmium yellow, lemon yellow and cadmium red. Adding more of one primary than another will give a yellower or redder version. Adding white will lighten, and adding complementary blue will darken the orange by lowering intensity and tone.

    2. Suggest clouds above the sunset, and butt this up to the sky using more cerulean blue and white. This gives the complementary contrast of orange and blue, and contrasts the warm and cool passages of paint, each making the other more resonant.

    3. As you go through the demonstration each new tone or colour you add influences the other. Step back and re-evaluate the painting’s colours, tones and edges, and add any finishing touches. Some of my alterations involved adding subtle variations in tone to avoid flat dark shapes on the cows, and reworking the grass and shadows.

    4. Mask off the painting with scrap paper and leave the sea shape exposed so you can flick and spatter paint on the surface for those finishing touches on the water.

    The finished painting

    St Just, acrylic on paper, (29x29cm)

  • Steve Strode

    Steve has been painting and teaching for over 15 years. His portfolios can be seen on and

    This article is taken from the August 2015 issue of Leisure Painter. In the full feature Steve shares advice for collecting reference material and painting your own sunset scenes.

    Click here for full details of what else you can learn, and to purchase your copy of the August issue.


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