“Sunrise over Smith Point”, 14″x11″ plein air oil on canvas. Collection of The Academy of Art of Easton, Maryland.

The sun moves fast. If you want to paint the sunrise you need to be ready for it, but mixing color is a problem. Here’s a way to do that and be ready for the appearance of its light. On the other hand, the sunset takes away the light falling on your palette while suddenly becoming intensely vibrant and saturated. You have to be prepared and you have to do a little educated guesswork if you want to be successful. Here are some things you can do.


Pre-dawn, the world is quiet, full of potential. There is not yet enough light to show color on the landscape though there may be the beginnings of color in the morning sky. The landscape, the sky, you, all full of potential. And so is the canvas on your easel.

Think about this a bit. In our discussion on values in the chapter The Value of Values, we noted that values were the first important visual signal our species used. Darks, lights, shades of gray. The pre-dawn landscape is all values and nothing else. The fact that this early morning landscape is all values and no color is the key to our strategy. We get ready for the sun to peak over those trees in the distance by painting values only.

Paint a value study on your canvas. A half hour before the sun rises, mix up a few values of gray to match the values you see in the landscape. A dark, dark. A couple of medium grays. A light gray for the sky. At this point you can paint your landscape quickly using the grays. Block it in fast. You are racing the sun. Values painted using the grays, you now have a grisaille into which you will push your color, starting with the sky first.

Calculate the color of the sun. As the sky warms or becomes brighter, take note of the color direction it is heading in. At this point, just minutes before sunrise, there will be enough light to mix the sky color and paint it in quickly. The sky sets the stage for the sun. If you are lucky, the sun will be rising behind trees and you will get a glimpse of the color through the trees. The sun will be warm or cool depending on the atmosphere this morning. Mix that color or make your best guess. If you can not glimpse the sun in advance, make your best guess by taking a cue from the color of the sky. For example, in “Sunrise over Smith Point”, above, the morning sky was quite orange, giving a good clue that the sun could be orange when poked its head above the horizon. When it finally came into view, the orange was laid down quickly. Other subtleties where apparent and so the bright yellow was added.

Add color to the landscape. Having painted the focal point of the painting, the rising sun, you can now mix up color to paint into the landscape. Just make sure match the values you painted earlier. Keep it simple. Bring a bit of that sky and sun down into the landscape here and there.


“Landscape at Dusk”, Vincent Van Gogh. Interesting to compare this with “Sunrise at Smith Point”, above

A sunset is not the reverse of a sunrise, but painting one has similar challenges. The advantage you have with a sunset is that you generally have time to mix paints while there is still some light. Now, instead of anticipating how everything will look when the sun comes up, you are imagining that moment just before it goes down. Just before it goes down will be very similar to the moment, in the sunrise, that the sun just came up. The landscape will have less color. The sky will be vibrant.

Paint a grisaille. Just like you did in the sunrise. The land will be dark with highlights of sun here and there. What color will the sunlight end up being? You can make your best guess. Mix the colors you anticipate. It is perfectly fine to start this process hours before sunset. Blocking the entire scene as a grisaille. Just values. As time gets closer to sunset, analyze the direction the sky color is going. Will there be clouds that were not there earlier? Block them in. Keep an eye on the atmospherics. Is the sky clear of moisture particles? Or is it rich and thick with moisture or dust? A thicker atmosphere will bend the light toward orange. These are clues you can look for. Make your best guesses and prepare your paints. When the time comes, move fast. See what is the color of the setting sun and where it is casting light and what is the overall color of that light. If you got it right, your paints are ready to go with minimal tweaking.