Virtual Art Academy
sunset oil painting

Two Secrets For How To Paint A Sunset In Oils: Grays and Values

Here is a demonstration of me painting a sunset in oils in the Peak District in England during one of my plein air painting workshops.

The Top Two Secrets for Painting Sunsets

There are two main secrets for painting sunsets:

  • Control your values so that the sun is lighter in value than the surrounding sky. This is a problem because the color of the sun at sunset is orange, and orange is a fairly dark color. This means that you have to go darker on the background sky.
  • To make the brilliant colors of a sunset stand out, you need to control the saturation of the background sky. You cannot get anywhere near the brilliance of the sun with paint, so you have to get the relative saturation correct between the sun and sunlit clouds and the background sky. This means in practice that you have to gray down the sky considerably.

These two tips will make your sunsets vibrant and exciting. If you want to learn a lot more about painting sunsets, you can study the advanced lesson: AD108 How To Paint A Sunset.

More Sunset Paintings

Here are some more of my sunset paintings:

how to paint a sunset in oils
Cat. No. 1129 Sunset Over Zhaosu Grass Plains- 32.8cm x 40.3cm – Oil on Linen
how to paint a sunset in oils
Cat. No. 1205 Sunrise in Xinjiang – 30cm x 23cm – Oil on Linen

Sunset Painting by Monet

This painting by Claude Monet is interesting because he only followed one of the principles I gave above. He did make the sun more saturated (the second principle), but he did not darken the background sky (the first principle) to make the sun lighter than its surroundings.

If you look at the black and white version of the painting this becomes more clear. In fact you can see that the monochrome version does not have the feeling of a sunset at all. This is because he did not darken the background sky, instead preferring to keep the painting high key.

He probably did this in order to maintain the notan structure of the painting. If he had gone darker on the surrounding sky, then the sky shape would be close in value to the foreground shape of the river bank and trees. For this reason he probably sacrificed some of the reality of the brilliance of the sun at sunset.

Whether this works of not is open to discussion. Having spent countless hours painting sunsets over the years,I find the dark orange sun in Monet’s painting a little unnatural, although it is still a beautiful painting. It works as a painting because of his beautiful notan design. as well as his attractive complementary color scheme.

This is the classic balancing act between Visual Poetry and Visual Music.

  • Visual Music: notan design and color harmony
  • Visual Poetry: the moody feeling of a the last rays of the sun setting below the horizon
sunset painting in oils by Claude Monet
Claude Monet Sunset On The Seine At Lavacourt Winter Effect-1880

Here you can see that the sun is no lighter than its surroundings. In fact, when you convert the painting to black and white, the sun and its reflection completely disappears into the background, losing all the feeling of the sunset.

sunset painting in oils by Claude Monet
monochrome version of Monet’s sunset

In Sunset Over Zhaosu Grass Plains below, you can see that I darkened the sky to capture the relative value of the brilliance of the sun more accurately. You can see that as a result, the value of the sky and of the land are now much closer together. It takes a lot of control over your colors to differentiate the values of the sky and the land when you do this.

sunset image in black and white
Sunset Over Zhaosu Grass Plains in black and white
how to paint a sunset in oils
Cat. No. 1129 Sunset Over Zhaosu Grass Plains- 32.8cm x 40.3cm – Oil on Linen

More Oil Painting Techniques

See more oil painting techniques.

What Our Students Are Saying About The Virtual Art Academy

The small steps are easy to do

The small steps are easy to do 1

I am extremely impressed with the process that Barry has developed for VAA.  Learning to paint can be intimidating, but when broken into many small projects it is very do-able.  I just did my first live model painting session- a 5 hour, one day session.  Thanks to VAA, I was able to break the painting down into chunks- the notan; using triangulation to check drawing points; the colours- hues, saturation, values; focal point; how to mix and handle the palette.  I did not expect a masterpiece with this first session, but was pleased to get as far as I did.  I look forward to continuing with the program.  Thank you!

Kim Stepney