What happens when you watch a sunset? Chances are you’re in awe and glad to be alive. It may make you laugh or move you to tears. And inevitably, as an artist, you’ll probably feel the urge to paint it. But dang, painting sunsets can be tricky. For one thing, the sun sets so quickly! It’s almost impossible to keep up. And so what do we do? We take photos and plan to paint from them later. And when we do, our paintings just don’t live up to our experience. Jacob Aguiar is a fantastic landscape painter in pastels but it was his sunsets that stunned me – each one evokes the emotions that often accompany the setting sun.
How does he do that??
I decided to ask him if he’d share his tips for painting sunsets in a guest blog and yes!! he agreed 🙂
Don’t know his sunsets? Here’s one to get you sighing:
Before I hand you over to him, let me tell you a bit about Jacob Aguiar.
Jacob Aguiar Bio
Jacob Aguiar is a naturopathic doctor who spends his weekends painting. He discovered pastels in 2011 when he came across the landscape pastels of Richard McKinley. He was hooked and began experimenting and studying with several artists including Richard McKinley, Albert Handell, Clark Mitchell, and Marla Baggetta. Since then he’s exhibited in a number of national shows winning awards along the way. He teaches regular classes locally and workshops internationally. Check out his website for more info and paintings!
And now it’s my pleasure to hand the blog over to the man himself – Jacob Aguiar!
Jacob Aguiar – For The Love Of Sunsets
Likely nearly every artist to have ever lived, I paint light and the effects of light on the landscape. Sunrises and sunsets are so spectacular in that they can turn very benign, even ugly scenes into brilliant scenes. Another reason I paint sunsets is I work full time so often the only time during the week I can get out and paint or take photos is in the evening. Naturally sunsets make up an important part of my reference photos.
It was the winter of 2016 when I really began focusing on painting sunsets. Prior to that, I may have done a random sunset scene here or there, but it wasn’t until I saw the sun setting on a local marsh that I fell in love with this time of day. The painting Gail included above – “Winter Scene, Near Sunset” – is one of my very first sunset paintings, painted winter of 2016.
Before I begin talking about painting sunsets in pastel, I would like to recommend a video by John Lasater on painting the sunset in oils called Painting Into Direct Sunlight. Although he’s painting in oils, the general rules hold true. John sets up and paints a sunset from life as the sun descends behind a row of trees with buildings in the foreground. I learned many of the basics of painting sunsets from this video.
As with painting any subject, be it landscape, portrait, or still life, observation is the key to success here. The nuances of color and balance between bright, intense hues, and neutrals is essential, as a scene with only very saturated color can feel garish or sickly sweet. On the other hand, one only need to do a Google search for “George Inness Sunset” to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Inness rarely used oranges, reds, or yellows at their full intensity. Rather they are slightly neutralized, which, when combined with his wonderful compositions, gives a sense of mystery, wonder, and calm.
Sunsets shift in color and value so quickly that painting from life can be a challenge. It can certainly be done (as John Lassater does in his video), especially if you set up your composition and anticipate the location where the sun will set behind the horizon line before the sun actually sets. However, rather than rush to get a painting done, I will take my pastels out and collect color swatches of the scene. If I’m really organized, I’ll divide the paper into different areas for the sky, sun, trees, ground plane, water, etc., and place colors in each category as I see them. Otherwise, I’ll just put colors on the paper for reference back in the studio. I will then use my reference photos as a guide for composition and drawing.
The biggest difference between the way the sun looks like in real life and how it appears in a photo is that in a photo, lights will get completely blown out and turn bright white, and darks will often go to black. So with a very brilliant sunset, you basically have a photo that is only good for the drawing. The entire reason you took the photo is eliminated by taking the photo! I rely on plein air painting, and taking color notes to ensure I get accurate color and values in my sunset paintings.
Look at this photo below that I used as reference for “March Sunset.” You can see the photo is essentially useless apart from basic drawing of the scene. The color and values in the completed painting come from study outdoors and practice!
Let me show you a progression. First here’s my studio set up. My ipad is held by a basic ‘gooseneck’ iPad holder found on Amazon. There are hundreds of them out there, and they all receive a lot of bad reviews! This is my second one. The first lasted about a year, which I consider a great purchase for the price. I used to have to limit my painting time due to my right arm fatiguing by holding the iPad. That’s no longer a problem.
My paper is taped to a backing board, and you can also see my two-value notan. I do both two-value and four-value sketches. I often start with a four-value sketch and then simplify it to two values to establish the most basic, abstract relationship between darks and lights.
Using the notan and the reference photo, I will mass in the composition using a reddish-orange Nupastel. I’ve found this color works well for nearly any scene, and it particularly works well for a sunset in which the landscape is influenced by a warm light. I am then responding to a warm underpainting, which will ensure I adhere closely to this color sense. If I were to place a very cool color on this underpainting, it would feel out of place. That’s not to say I won’t use cool colors, as I absolutely will. However, I am more mindful about the dominant warm light when I have the warm underpainting to respond to.
I will then apply color over the orange based on my color swatches or what I remember from the scene, and then set it in with alcohol. By that I basically mean I use isopropyl alcohol to wet and smear the pastel, creating an underpainting with soft edges. This next photo shows what the underpainting looks like.
I then begin applying final color over the underpainting. In the sky, I have used a variety of yellows, oranges, pinks, and very light green. The sun itself is painted with vertical and horizontal strokes rather than painting a ball in the sky, giving it a more painterly quality. It will be the lightest area of the sky, and be slightly cooler than the immediately surrounding sky. A cream color will often work.
In this scene the sun is setting behind this stand of trees, so it obscures and softens the edge of the tree line, while warming the trees considerably. While there is green foliage in these trees, the sun’s influence turns those greens to warm ochres, oranges, and yellows. In the shadow areas, warm violets were used to adhere to the color scheme established with the underpainting. I’ve used many of the sky and tree colors in the snow reflection, maintaining color harmony.
I use almost every professional grade pastel on the market. I have complete sets of Nupastel, Cretacolor, and Sennelier, and also have plenty of Ludwigs, Blue Earth, Schmincke, Rembrandt, Girault, Unisons, and Great Americans. I have yet to own the holy grail of pastels, Henri Roché, but I am planning on getting some at the PSA annual marketplace or at IAPS.
My other career is as a naturopathic doctor, seeing patients four full days a week. Many of my patients are chronically ill, “medical mysteries,” and with chronic Lyme disease. It’s fulfilling work but incredibly difficult work. I work full days Tuesday to Friday, and try to get out and paint or take reference photos a few days during the week. I then spend most of my Saturday to Monday either painting, thinking about painting, or taking reference photos.
I love my patients and the work I do, but the joy, excitement, and passion I feel for painting the landscape is unmatched. I feel that being an artist is a natural fit for me, and keeps me balanced in a way that maintains my health and sanity. I can recall a period about a year ago where I went for a month without painting, and it was the toughest month I’ve had in a very long time. The stress of my job crept into every aspect of my life. I was always very tense and had severe bouts of insomnia. Painting is a fix that I require to prevent my medical career from taking over my life completely.
That last answer is a little dramatic, but it’s 100% true. I don’t know what I would be doing or what my life would be like right now if I wasn’t an artist.
I hope you’ll give painting the sunset a try! It can be challenging, but the results are well worth the effort. Happy painting.
Thank you Jacob for sharing your works and process with us! Time to start painting a sunset me thinks.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us – are you inspired to paint sunsets? What’s been holding you back? What’s the main thing you learnt on this post? We’d LOVE to hear what you have to say so please leave a comment.
Until next time,