How I Painted This Striking Sunset

In this post, I’ll walk you through how I painted Fraser Island, Sunset using oil paints, brushes, and palette knives. It features a striking sunset witnessed from the jetty, with brilliant warm lights, ambiguous shadows, and shimmering water. All up, it took about three and a half hours spread over a few sessions.

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023
Dan Scott, Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023

(I also published a video on this painting here for those of you who prefer to watch rather than read.)

Painting the Landscape (Free Workshop)

I’ll walk you through the entire process using one of my recent paintings. You’ll see how I go from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished painting.

Reference Photo

Below is the reference photo I painted from. I took this in May 2023 during my last visit to K’gari in Queensland, Australia (formerly Fraser Island). Chontele and I got married on this trip.

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023, Reference Photo
Dan Scott, Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023, Reference Photo

What I Used

Here’s what I used for this painting:

Refer to the supplies page for full details about what I use and recommend.

Stain the Surface

I start by staining the surface with a dark, muddy color. As this subject is relatively dark, I want to start with a dark foundation and work my way up to the lighter colors.

Dan scott, Fraser Island, Staining

I then use paper towel to lift paint from the surface and map out some of the major shapes. I also use my finger to loosely sketch the subject. I don’t go into much detail. I focus mostly on capturing the jetty, jetty lights, clouds, and the horizon line. Whilst I’ll eventually paint over this sketch, it’s still important to get it right, as small mistakes here can compound into critical mistakes later.

Dan scott, Fraser Island, mapping
Sketch the Subject

First Color Strokes

After letting the paint dry for about an hour, I start introducing color. I use timid strokes, as I don’t want to commit to any particular direction just yet. All I want to do is get a feel for the subject and see what the colors look like on the surface.

Dan scott, Fraser Island, sky
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (1)
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (2)

The Sky

The sky is the focal point of the painting. It needs to really “pop” and showcase all those brilliant sunset colors.

The colors are strongest around the left-hand side, where the sun just fell below the horizon line. I use mostly cadmium yellow deep and a few touches of cadmium orange here.

The colors gradually get weaker and cooler as we move away from the sun. I make sure to pick up the soft gradation from the bright yellows and oranges to pale yellows and purples to pale blues to stronger and darker blues in the top right corner. I keep my brushwork fairly relaxed to convey a somewhat hazy atmosphere and the idea of fading sunlight. I also go over the clouds with darker purples and blues. The clouds play an important role in acting as a point of contrast for the surrounding sky colors. Darker and cooler clouds = more contrast against the bright sky colors.

Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (3)
Dan scott, Fraser Island, sky bright 1
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (6)
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (7)

Using Broken Color for the Water

The water is tricky because it’s partly reflective and partly translucent by nature. Some areas reflect light from the sky, and some don’t, allowing us to see through into the water. It’s important to convey both of these qualities in my painting.

My strategy is to build up layers of broken color to capture the shimmering light on the water. I weave together light yellows and oranges to suggest reflected light and dark blues and greens to suggest areas where we can see below the water’s surface.

The broken color technique is fairly simple. I pick up a color on my brush and make a few strokes. Then, I pick up another color and make a few more strokes. And I do this repeatedly until I have a nice patchwork of color.

Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (8)
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (9)

Painting the Vague People on the Jetty

The people wandering the jetty are vague and ambiguous, but I still need to paint them with accuracy. Their heads, shoulders, and torsos need to be in the right spots and in the right proportions. Mistakes here tend to stand out, whereas, say, with the clouds, you probably won’t care if I make them too big or small or a different shape. This is a good lesson for every painting. Think about which parts of the subject you have less room for error and focus on getting those parts right. You can be a bit more relaxed in the other areas.

The vague people also need to fit with the impressionistic style of the painting. They would look out of place if I painted them with too much detail and clarity. This is one of those times when it’s good to depart from the reference photo. In this case, the photo captures too much detail in these dark areas. When I’m standing there on the jetty, I’m not focusing on the jetty and the people; my attention is on the sunset and its brilliant colors. Everything else is slightly vague and out of focus, so that’s how I should paint it.

Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (10)
Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (11)

Negative Space

I spend a fair bit of time on the water on the right-hand side. This is a tricky color to get right. It’s a deeper and more solid blue than the rest of the water. It also acts as negative space for the vague people on the jetty. That means I can use the water to carve out and better define the people.

I also work on the negative space between the jetty pillars. Again, I can use these areas of negative space to help define and carve out the jetty. I do a fair bit of tinkering and adjusting as I try to get the colors, edges, and negative space just right. I know what I want the painting to look like, but I need to experiment with a few different techniques and colors to get there.

Dan scott, Fraser Island, figure again
Dan scott, Fraser Island, palette knife
Dan scott, Fraser Island, closeup

Green Lights

The painting is almost finished. All that’s left to do is add the green lights along the jetty and the green reflections on the water. These are small but key details that really bring the painting home. For the color, I use viridian green plus titanium white. These jetty lights are fairly weak, so I don’t want the color to be too light, just light enough to appear as a light source. I also scumble a bit of the green color on the jetty to pick up more of that soft glow.

Dan scott, Fraser Island, highlights

Signing the Painting Complete

I sign the painting complete in the bottom left-hand corner with a small round brush and magenta. I’m quite happy with this one. I think the sky, in particular, really “pops” and the painting says what I want it to say. It will also be a pleasant reminder of getting married to Chontele.

Dan Scott, Striking Sunset, 2023, Progress Shot (14)

Here’s the finished painting alongside the reference photo:

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Feel free to share with friends. If you ever want to learn more, start with my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.


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