3 ways to paint a believable red sunset

Have you ever tried to paint a red sunset?

If you have, then you know it’s hard.

This April we were able to witness a red sunset one night because of a sandstorm in Sahara. Even though I live all the way in Finland, the dust particles in the atmosphere carried out their visual sight effects all the way here.

I had my watercolor paints with me so i did my best to capture color notes from the process of the sun setting. I will use them further below to explain my points.

When an actual red sunset happens, you see a red, giant glowing ball on the sky, creating red highlights on a water, accompanied by a cool sky that makes the sunset look even more dramatic…

…It’s the parade of a sun that is a light source, echoed by a sky that is also a light source.

So why is it so hard? Just paint a red dot and a blue sky, and that’s it, right?

Well, no.

The problem comes from the fact that sun is the brightest thing in the world for us.

But red as a color has a tricky chroma value.

Screenshot 2019-04-28 at 13.26.31.png

(Above: a screenshot from James Gourneys book: Color & Light. As you can see, red needs to be mid value to carry out the saturation of ”red”, while yellow can be of lighter value to carry out lots of saturation. This means, that you can paint a yellow sun that looks like a sun in many different value situations, while red sun needs more planning)

This means that the color has to be a certain value to be able to carry out the saturation to actually appear red. If it’s lighter, it becomes pink, which is a different color as we perceive it.

And this value isn’t a light value. But a light source is meant to be of light value.

So ideally, the sun would be red and be the lightest value in the painting. But because we don’t have a light source with paint – although with digital our screens are a light source – we need to use our brain to solve this simple dilemma.

Way 1: Saturation contrast – compressed values with sky and sun

Above: Sunset by Monet

In this painting by Monet the sun is the same value with the sky, but it pops from the painting because of the saturation. This is an interesting way to paint the sunset, and it gives beautiful contrast and even an ominous mood to the painting.

Above: the Monet painting converted to black and white. The sun disappears, because the values are basically the same with the sun and the sky. The price is, that there’s a loss of believability because the sun isn’t the brightest object in the sky anymore, and the result can begin to look cartoony.


Here’s my digital painting of the sunset the same evening, when the colors were still fresh on my mind. I tried to get as close to what I saw. The values are very close with the sun and the sky, the sun being just a little bit lighter. The sun is just light enough to carry the red, but it is turning a little bit pink for sure.

Way 2: Overexpose the sun, use red on the sky

Above: Photo from Pinterest

A very common way to paint a sun is leaving the sun circle white or yellow, and then use the sky to indicate the redness. This way you can stay true to the exposure effect that our eyes see and still give a feeling of the overall redness. In the above image also note how the water reflections are revealing the redness of the sun.


These are my quick color notes from the red sunset before it set to the point that the sun turned very red. Yellow is very light value, so it is also an effective color to use with red surroundings.

Above: See how The Lion King animated movie used yellow with the sun but red surroundings to indicate the overall redness. Picture: Disney

Way 3: Mid-value sun with dark skies – Underexposure

Above: a photo from Pinterest

The third way I’d like to talk about is the underexposure effect.

Now this is a way to get really, really red suns that really look like suns. They have the believablility because of the value relationships.

…But it comes with a limitation. To keep the sun as the brightest object and have it red, the rest of the painting need to stay on the dark side. The problem with this is the loss of believability with the sky values. The sky saturation also needs to be very controlled so the sun will pop.


Above: my color notes from that same evening, the sun turned very red as it got close to the horizon and I tried my best to capture it as fast and close as I could with my watercolors.

What is your favourite way to paint a red sunset? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please share them 🙂


Ps. I also happened to find this thread from Pinterest where people painted a red sunset with a lighter sky. Even though they are not realistically accurate and the sun doesn’t look like a light source anymore, they look really nice in their cartoony aestethics. Check out the post from here if you’re interested.


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