96 – Painting Sunrise and Sunset

Sunrise is filled with promise. Sunset is often a time of reflection. Each carries its own poetry, emotion and opportunity for expression. But is there a difference other than the significance we let our minds attach to them? Technically, no! There isn’t. There are a few things to consider as we approach painting sunsets and sunrise paintings.

The first one is how we perceive light throughout the day. At sunset, our eyes are daylight adapted and may even be a bit weary from the day. Some hues may be lost or not perceived in a manner peculiar to sunset. At sunrise, however, the night’s darkness has left us with very acute night vision and every faint or minor change in the sky’s color is evident. In short, you may perceive more colors at dawn than at dusk.

The next thing to take into account is atmosphere. At sunset the sun shines through the atmosphere that has been warmed and polluted by the days activities, resulting in a warmer, redder tone than at sunrise, when the sun shines through cooler air that is less clouded by the exhaust and dust generally put out into the air during the day. Sunrise tends to be paler, less reddened spectacle.

Rayleigh Scattering – Sunrise vs Sunset Colors
The reds, oranges and pinks of dawn and dusk dominate the sky because the earth’s rotation of its axis.The sun is farther from the beholder at these points in the day and only longer wavelengths of light (reds, oranges and yellows), are able to travel the longer distances to our eyes.

As the sun appears to move from high up in the sky to nearer the horizon, the effect of rayleigh scattering is evident. The blue sky changes to yellow, orange, red, pink, purple and finally as the sun dips below the horizon, back to blue.

What to look for when painting the sunset
Photographs rarely do justice to a dramatic sunset, and rarely for sun rises as well. Look for the grays and neutralized colors that give contrast and power to the bold, conspicuous reds and yellows. Watch for the gradation of the sky behind the cloud layers. Look for the light that is hitting the tops of the clouds. It is usually whiter than the light that is closer to the ground and the sun. The higher clouds are whiter and the lower ones are more yellow and red. After sunset, the earth casts a shadow on creating a gray layer that rises up from the horizon.

Let History Guide You
Be sure to study how painters throughout art history have depicted sunrises and sunsets. We can learn from them and get plenty of inspiration.

George Inness
Tom Thomson

The Limits of Photo Reference
Photographs often miss the color of the ground and create almost solid black silhouettes. The earth below sunset is dark but not black like it appears in a lot of photos.

Direct Observation
There is nothing like witnessing the beauty and grandeur of a sunset firsthand! If you want to paint sunsets or sunrises from direct observation or “en plein air” You have to be prepared. Work small, so you can cover ground quickly. Premix color that you anticipate needing. You can make a good approximation of the sky gradation and you can make some informed guesses about the clouds.

Make sure you have room to mix clear, clean lights so when the moment comes, you are ready to capture natures show! And don’t forget to leave room on your palette!

Happy Painting,


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