How to create a sunset watercolor painting was the topic for my Monday watercolor class this week. For this work I chose a sunset scene with lots of warm colors and interesting reflections.
The reference photo was provided by my friend Robyn Lovelock and is of Lake Bonney in South Australia, close to the borders of Victoria and New South Wales.
I chose this photo reference for my class for a number of reasons:
Firstly we had just completed a work which was predominately green and I wanted my students to have experience with a work with very little or no green in it.
Secondly this photo required very little editing to turn it into a nice watercolor painting.
Thirdly I wanted to teach them how to capture the light in a beautiful sunset.
Finally I could show my students how to tackle soft water reflections in barely damp paper. If not done at just the right time you can end up with unwanted backruns or cauliflowers. On the other hand if you wait too long you end up with hard edges which would not look right for this watery scene.
Very little prior drawing was done for this watercolor painting. In fact the only drawing was of a horizontal line representing the distant shoreline.
Painting design decisions
I made a number of decisions about the design of my watercolor painting at this point:
I placed the distant shoreline lower than in the photo to keep it well away from the center of the work.
I also decided to leave out the diagonal shore in the foreground as well as the tree on the left hand edge of the photo. They did not add to the painting and the hard edge of the diagonal would have acted to lead the eye out of the painting rather than keeping it in it.
I moved the position of the sun to the left for a more pleasing balance.
When I paint a scene like this I never slavishly try to paint everything that is in a photo – if I wanted to do that then I would just frame the photo. As artists we have the ability to extract the essence of an image and hopefully improve on it.
Brief steps for painting this watercolor
The sky was painted with the board held in a portrait position so that the water colors would flow parallel to the horizon line. Otherwise if I painted this with the board in a normal landscape position I risked all the colors flowing down into one another.
I made sure to leave some of the paper untouched where the sun is positioned. This gives my painting the greatest light.
I left the sky to dry fully.
I then painted the distant tree line running some of the dead tree trunks into the water (this is why they are dead).
Again I let this dry fully.
Finally I painted the water with horizontal brush strokes. Water reflections are a little duller than the object they are reflecting, in this case the sky.
While the lake area of our scene is still quite wet- the shine is still on the paper, I dropped in the soft edged reflections of the distant bushes and trees. The after it had lost its shine I used a small brush with a good point, and very little water to paint the soft edged reflections of the dead trees in the foreground. It is a good idea to practice this on a scrap piece of watercolor paper till you get the timing right. When you practice something like this make sure you use the same paper as the watercolor paper of your painting.
Sometime when you are painting the odd tiny drop of watercolor paint will land on a light area of your painting like the sky. How can you fix this?
One way is to very quickly touch it with the tip of a tissue. Don’t press on it or you will push some of the paint into the underlying watercolor wash of the sky.
If you only notice it after the droplet has thoroughly dried then don’t worry as it is still very easy to fix and I often use this technique instead of what I suggested in the previous paragraph as I don’t like to be distracted from the particular wash I am working on to go and fix something. So now that the tiny droplet is dry what should I do?
Well one simple trick is to turn the droplet into something else, such as a bird shape. It is amazing how often these droplets appear in just the right spot for a bird or group of birds.
If you don’t what it there at all then what you need to do is to get a small, size siz or smaller, round watercolor brush with a very good point and dip it into water. They dry out most of the water in your brush with a towel or tissue. Then with the tip of your brush start rubbing the top of the droplet on you painting very lightly. Keep rubbing until it disappears. Sometimes you may need to touch (not press) the droplet lightly with a tissue and then repeat the process.
The trick is not to have too much water in your brush or you will dissolve the underlying layer of paint. You see the droplet is just sitting on top of the underlying sky wash – like a mini glaze – so if you only have enough water in you brush to dissolve the droplet and not more, then you will not affect the underlying watercolor wash layer.
After doing the drawing our first watercolor painting step is painting the sky and clouds. Create a very weak mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, about the strength of a weak cup of tea.
Then using the side of a round brush loaded with only clean water, wet the area of the sky which will be cloud free i.e. only wet the area which would normally be blue sky. Leave some large areas untouched – this is where the clouds will appear.
By using the side of the brush and only lightly touching the paper you will create wet areas with rough edges. In Figure 2, I have added a tiny amount of watercolor paint in my wash so you can see where the clear water would normally be applied.
Now while the sky area is still quite wet go back in with the sky mixture already produced. Hold the brush as you did when you initially wet the sky. As you see interesting cloud edges formed – leave them! That is what you are after. Importantly don’t fiddle, just put the sky in and leave it. Don’t mix the sky colors after you wet the sky as it will dry and this watercolor painting technique requires the initial wetted area to be quite wet. It is basically a wet on wet technique. This step is seen in figure 3.
Once the sky is in place, and still wet, you should have some areas where the sky color has pooled, go back into the cloud areas now with just clean water, see figure 4. Again hold the brush so that only the body of it (and not the point) just touches the paper. Where the sky color has pooled it will react with the clean water of your brush as you touch it and create some nice edge variety. It is important in this step to leave some areas of the cloud shapes untouched so they form some nice dry brush edges.
Notice too that I painted into the hills, rather than just painting up to their edge. This will allow the hills to look like they are part of the scene rather than just stuck on which can happen if you try to leave the hill shapes white.