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Mastering Sunsets 4 (of 4)

Demo Painting

Plein air painting on the West Coast of New Zealand


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This Month's Challenge

Mastering Sunsets Project 7 : Plein Air!

Demo Painting

"West Coast - Plein Air" 5 x 13" Oil on Canvas

Demo Painting

"West Coast - Studio" 9 x 22" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson

So far we've painted sunsets from photos, which is good training, but the camera has its limitations. If you want to be able to paint sunsets with more life in them, you're going to have to get out there and paint the real thing. It can be hugely daunting, but you'll find that it's really worth the effort. You'll only have about half an hour to complete your painting, so it's not going to be very fancy, but with it you can capture colour information that a camera can't record. Even if you didn't manage to succeed in your painting your brain will have spent 30 minutes absorbing plenty of information and you'll start to be able to see the true difference between what a camera sees and what the human eye sees. Then you'll be ready to apply that knowledge in a studio painting, taking your work to the next level.

If you honestly just can't paint outside for some reason you can always paint along with me in the demo video, but this time I'm really challenging you to take a bold step and get out there painting. The challenge is to paint one or more sunsets from life outdoors, quite small, then to take that back to the studio and paint a larger version, making changes where you see fit. GOOD LUCK!


Paint better than a camera

You can see in the photos below that cameras have real trouble capturing the colours in the bright sky and the darker colours in the shadows at the same time. To capture the first image I centred the camera on the sun and half pressed the button to focus the camera on that (with all settings on auto). Then I clicked the button fully to take the shot. To capture the second shot I focused the camera on the shadowed hills, then kept my finger half pressed on the button as I turned back to point at the sun, and took the photo. So the first image is exposed for the sun and the second is exposed for the hillside. As painters we can do better - we can paint both exposures in the same image, as I did in the painting above.

Click image to enlarge.    
Resource Photo - click to enlarge
Resource Photo - click to enlarge
Photo exposed for the sky   Photo exposed for the hills

Here's a video explaining how to analyse colour and value with a colour checker:

Can't see this video? Watch it on Youtube here:

Get The Ultimate Painter's Tool here:


You can learn more about using Colour here.

Note: If you can't see the videos on this page (above) or on Youtube, I can't help with that sorry - there will be something wrong with your computer settings, but I'm no computer wiz. You would need to contact a computery person to fix that problem.

Extra Materials for Acrylic Painters
Painters using acrylics can do all the same techniques presented in these projects, but the trick for them is to keep their paints wet on the palette and on the painting itself, which just means using one or all of three things to help with that - a stay-wet-palette, a water spray bottle to spray the palette and the painting every few minutes, and a retarder medium to slow the drying time of the paint. It also pays to mix twice as much paint as you think you will need because big piles of paint dry out much slower than small ones, and you can waste a lot of time having to remix colours.


Gallery of the Month's Workshop Challenge Entries  

Painting Critiques

"Karaka Bay Sunset" 42cm x 30cm Watercolour on Paper by Bob Mitchener.

Great painting Bob - nice to see you back in the workshop again. This is an interesting triangular design with the eye being led from the sun to the foreground to the boat and back to the sun - finely balanced with your signature. Perhaps a subtle hint of a few rocks under the water would have been good in the foreground too. But you can always add. Subtracting and simplifying things as you've done is the tricky part which you've done so well in this painting. I wondered what it might have looked like with a darker foreground so I took the liberty of trying that in photoshop. I don't think it's better, just another option. Your drawing of the boat is spot on too, which is the key to the whole painting. Beautiful!

With the foreground darkened in photoshop.


"Sunset on Union Road, Goderich, On Canada" 14 x 18" Oil on Canvas by Gina Dalkin-Davis

Hi Gina, I'm taking from your comments that this work was done in the studio and yet it does have some of the bold brushwork common to plein air work. Rather than write screeds about this I've done a little photoshop work to illustrate some changes I might have made.

1. Increased the tonal range - making the darks in the foreground darker and lightening the sun and highlights.

2. Introduced more of the sun's colour in the background elements thereby losing some of the muddy no-descript colour back there.

3. Darkened the foreground slightly to help with the composition a the glowing effect.

The Original Painting Fiddled in Photoshop



"75 Bridgeman RD sunset_v2" 11 x 14" Oil on Canvas by Laura Xu

Laura I read through all the comments the others made on this painting and can't agree more with Michael J. Severin's comments which I'll quote here for the benefit of others:

"Looking much better.  The sky is looking good.  I would still like to see the edges of your tree reflections much less sharp.  Also, where the bright sun reflections meet the tree reflections is much too abrupt.  Soften that edges with a warmer yellow and progress into orange as it meets the tree reflection. The other side of the tree reflection, take a brush and go right down the left edge of the tree reflection so it blends into the light part of the water.   Your edges of the foreground tree reflections are also much to sharp.   Laura, don't be timid here, just go for it on those edges.  The value of your background trees is very, very well handled!!  I love the shaft of light on the green grass.  Near the ends of your tree reflections, introduce a little of the blue/violet is picking up some reflection from the sky above.  Always think ...gradation in your elements.   Now, if you insist on putting those tree trunks in on the bank, they must show a reflection.  To summarize:  Concentrate on your EDGES and GRADATION of your tree reflections." - Michael J. Severin

I would also add that the thin strip of dark land at the base of the painting seems to be an afterthought - it might be better to just continue on with the water. Also the branch stretching out from the big tree seems to follow and hide the line of the bank which makes us question whether it is part of the tree or growing from the bank. Better to move the branch to allow for some distinction there. It's exciting to see the variety of brushwork you've employed and overall the colours work very well.


"Workshop 28" Oil on Canvas by Randall Tillery

Beautiful work Randall! A++. This painting is a lesson in itself. There's nothing I would change except for the green tree way in the background - I would expect it to be more orange in keeping with the sun's colour corona there.

The Original Painting With the distant green tree made more orange.


"Workshop 28" 8 x 16" Plein Air and 12 x 24" Studio, Acrylic on Canvas by Walda Juhl

Good on you Walda for getting out there and giving plein air painting a try and for choosing such a complex subject. Your sky looks great in the studio piece and it looks like you learned the lesson well of finding the happy medium between the colours of your plein air piece and the colours of your photo. Fantastic! All that detail in the foreground tree is beautiful but I personally would have made more of a suggestion of the tall trees in the background. Squint hard at them in the photo and that's the degree of detail I would recommend there - large blurred masses with a few hints of the major trunks. (You've also removed all that lovely dark mass behind the edge of the barn which was what made the roof so appealing.)

Similarly you've agonised over the detail in the fence where a more calligraphic approach would be much more interesting. Beware large areas of the same colour as you've made in the roof of the barn. It's uppermost plane would be slightly lighter for a starter and you can always throw in a rusty panel to break the space up a bit. Having a tree sitting so near the base of the painting is always a bit uncomfortable like it was squeezed in. The placement in the plein air piece was better, or even running it out the bottom as in the photo. A few things to think about for the next one. Great work!



My final paintings


Demo Painting

"West Coast - Plein Air" 5 x 13" Oil on Canvas

Demo Painting

"West Coast - Studio" 9 x 22" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson



Get the Demonstration Video
(Only available in the complete Mastering Sunsets course)

click for info
Mastering Sunsets
The Complete Course for Oils or Acrylics, Beginner to Advanced
Sunsets are one of the most alluring subjects for painters, but also one of the trickiest to get right. Learn the keys to painting successful sunsets in this comprehensive and inspiring course with New Zealand artist Richard Robinson.
2.5 Hours of easy to follow tutorials
7 Complete painting demonstrations
30 Student critiques
*80 Pages of printable lesson notes
Online colour harmony tool
Bonus online content
Running Time: 2.5 Hours
Format: DVD or View Online/Download

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