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How to Paint a Vibrant Sunset in Watercolour with Gwen Scott

Posted on Thu 21 Jan 2016

My watercolour paintings are always based on my own photographs, sketches and colour notes made on holidays and days out. The detailed photographs set alongside the drawings in my sketchbook evoke memories of the places I have visited and record valuable details that I might otherwise forget.

On a sunny evening in Northumberland, walking across the beach to Bamburgh Castle, camera in hand, I eagerly anticipated the colourful sunset photographs I expected to take. I had an image in mind for a painting of the majestic castle in silhouette with beautiful glowing colours above it. It wasn’t long before I realised, however, that the sun was setting behind me instead of over the castle. What a disappointment.

Back in my studio and recalling the strong image I had envisaged on the beach, I decided to create my own version of the castle and sunset in watercolour. I sourced one of my photographs of a sunset that I had previously taken from my bedroom window. The silhouette of the rooftops on this photo had been uninspiring, but the colourful sunset would combine perfectly with a photo of the castle for my painting. Using a little imagination and these two photos as reference I completed the demonstration painting, Bamburgh Castle (see below).

How to Paint a Vibrant Sunset in Watercolour with Gwen Scott
  • Colour Palette

    Once I have decided on my colours I use a clean daisy palette to mix large individual washes (see left); these palettes come in various sizes and are made of plastic or porcelain. To make a strong wash of colour I add the pigment first then gradually include a brushful of water little by little, testing the strength of the colour in between brush loads on a spare piece of paper. The deep mixing wells are ideal for holding large washes of clean colours, keeping them separate so as not to run into each other.

    Sunsets are vibrant and dramatic so remember to add plenty of pigment to the washes to create strong colours, otherwise the painting will dry pale and insipid.

    The sunset is predominantly orange and blue. These colours are complementary so it is important to paint them side by side rather than on top of each other. This will keep the colours from turning muddy.

  • Demonstration - Bamburgh Castle

    You will need:


    • Saunders Waterford 300gsm NOT watercolour paper (19x25.5cm)


    • Ultramarine
    • Cerulean blue
    • Cobalt blue
    • Scarlet lake or cadmium red
    • Gamboge yellow
    • Alizarin crimson


    • Daisy palette or any other watercolour palette
    • Round brushes, Nos. 1, 5, 10 and 12
    • HB pencil

    See reference photographs for this demonstration below and above left.

  • Step One

    1. Make an outline drawing of the castle in the bottom quarter of the paper using a sharp HB pencil.

    2. Wet the whole of the paper with a No. 12 brush and clean water, brushing the water through the drawing rather than stopping at the outline. Wet the paper a second time so that it’s thoroughly wet. Allow the water to soak into the paper for half a minute before adding the colours.

    3. Working quickly wet in wet, paint a yellow wash just above the pencil line using the No. 5 brush. Clean the brush in the water and dab it on kitchen roll in between each wash.

    4. Using the tip of the brush and small strokes, add scarlet on top of the yellow. Paint the scarlet wash across the middle of the paper ensuring you leave white paper where the blue colour will be applied.

  • Step Two

    1. Add a deep scarlet and alizarin wash to the bottom of the scarlet cloud and with the point of the No. 1 brush add a few fine strokes of this to the yellow area above the castle.

    2. Using the No. 5 brush, paint the deep blue wash – cobalt mixed with a little alizarin – at the top right-hand corner. Try not to overlap the blue and the scarlet colour.

    3. Add the cerulean and cobalt blue wash above the yellow wash and below the scarlet cloud on to the white paper. Be careful not to overlap the blue and yellow, as this will turn green.

  • Step Three

    Add the dark cloud in between the blue and orange washes to merge the edges of the clouds. If the paper is still damp, reinforce any colours that appear to be drying a little too pale. Once the paper starts to dry, do not add more paint, as watermarks and hard edges will appear. Leave this to dry before painting the castle.

  • Step Four

    Check that there is enough silhouette colour mixed before painting the castle area. I always use three colours: a blue, red and yellow that I have already painted in the sky to mix for the colour of the silhouette rather than using black. Here I used the No. 10 brush with a good point to paint the castle carefully following the pencil outline. I began by painting the top and right side of the castle with the silhouette colour then, to the left of the castle, I merged the dark red mix made from scarlet and alizarin to give the appearance of the glowing sun lighting up that side of the castle and ground.

    The finished painting Bamburgh Castle, (19x25.5cm), see left.

  • Gwen Scott

    Gwen is a professional artist and tutor. To see more of her paintings and find out about her workshops visit

    This demonstration is taken from the March 2016 issue of Leisure Painter - click here to read more and purchase your copy.


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