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Pastel Workshops - How To Paint A Sunset

Updated on August 24, 2019

Cornish Sunset

Pastel on Paper.  Underpainted with watercolour.
Pastel on Paper. Underpainted with watercolour. | Source

I was camping in Cornwall a year or so ago, and there was a superb sunset over the Cornish hills. Luckily I had my camera ready and took a snap for reference, knowing that at some point I would get round to painting it.

I wanted to make the clouds vibrant and full of colour, so decided to underpaint the piece with watercolours, rather than pastels. The watercolour would not fill the tooth of the paper in any way, so I'd be able to really layer on the pastel later in the work.

Equipment List

Drawing Board
Good quality paper
1" brush
Good quality pastels
Cloths for hand wiping
Masking Tape
Watercolours (cheap ones are OK)

Getting Started - Watercolours

To begin underpainting with watercolours, wet the page all the way down to the line of hills. You really need tough pastel paper for this technique, so only Colourfix or Pastelmat will do (guys over the pond call these 'Velour' papers).

Begin at the top left with a wash of Phthalo Blue and sweep it horizontally across and down to the hills. Next while the phthalo is still wet use a wash of Ultramarine Blue. Start it mid way across the page and sweep it across to the right and down to the hills. Then paint a violet wash into these colours, keeping it to the right of the page. You can then drop stronger mixes of all these washes on to the page to create areas of darker wash.

Holding the drawing board up and allowing the wet washes to run from right to left creates interesting effects. Don't worry if the paint does things you don't like. This is only underpainting, so you can hide it with the pastel layer. As long as you keep the right of the page dark and the left light it's all OK, as there's a strong directional light soming from the sun in the left of the picture. Leave this to dry.

Finished Watercolour Underpainting

The finished watercolour underpainting with the bright highlights blocked in with pastel.
The finished watercolour underpainting with the bright highlights blocked in with pastel. | Source

Once the sky washes are dry, paint the hills with a strong wash of sap green. This is a complementary colour to the deep purple pastel we'll use later, and we'll leave some of the sap green showing through, to create depth and texture.

The Fun Bit

Now we can begin the pastel layers. In my photograph there is a dull bank of cloud behind all the foreground cloud to the left of the picture, so block this in first using a dull lilac pastel. As usual I used Unison Colour Pastels for this work.

Add white to create the highlight for the setting sun and bring this down a little into the hill line to suggest strong reflected light. Surround the with with a duck-egg yellow.

Next, set yourself up with a selection of pastels ranging from deep salmon pink to pale salmon pink, and magenta to pale bluish-pink and get painting. Keep the salmony pinks to the left of the picture as these are warmer colours, and the magenta and bluish pinks to the right as these are cooler clours.

Adding Pastels

Adding pastels to the watercolour underpainting.
Adding pastels to the watercolour underpainting. | Source

Setting The Tone

Build up the clouds layer by layer, starting with the stronger tones, then layering in paler colours over the top. Make sure there is more strong tone showing at the base of the cloud, as this gives the impression of reflected colour from the setting sun. Keep your light tones wispy and sweep the top edge of them upwards.

Adjusting The Tone

The hills blocked in.  Adjusting the mix of dark/light clouds.
The hills blocked in. Adjusting the mix of dark/light clouds. | Source

The Hills Are Alive

For the hills you will need the deepest bluish purple you have and the deepest reddish purple.

Using the bluish purple block in the hills starting from the right. Bring this colour to about mid way at the top of the hill line and all the way along the base. Next block in what's left with the reddish purple. Use a finder to smudge the bluish purple in so that no underpainting shows through, but leave the reddish purple with some of the sap green showing. This will sugest that the reddening sun is picking up some highlights in the grass.

Finishing Up

Finally, use a deep salmon red just underneath the sun highlight and Bob's yer uncle, Fanny's yer aunt.

Cornish Sunset

The finished piece again.
The finished piece again. | Source

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