Do not paint sunsets. The almost-artificial appearance of these celestial colour explosions makes it a challenge to convince the viewer that your sunset painting has any connection to reality. It always looks too bright. Kitsch. Unnatural. When you view a sunset painting there is often a sense that the artist has over-indulged. Consumed with excitement on their rare visit to the palette’s more vibrant colours, exaggerated, gaudy paintings are the likely result.
This photo was taken in June last year and it has not been enhanced other than some slight lifting of the foreground shadow. It had been a day of blue skies initially, quickly overwhelmed though by heavy grey rain clouds as the day wore on. Towards the end of the afternoon it seemed as though the clouds were starting to break up and disperse and although sunset prediction is game of chance, I felt that conditions might just be setting themselves up nicely to deliver the perfect sunset. The walk to Old Harry Rocks offers an excellent vantage point for the setting sun, looking back north-west across Studland Bay and when I arrived at the rocks there was certainly some colour in the sky, but nothing to jump up and down about. Inevitably, the clouds contrived to arrange themselves in a less-than-helpful position and so I packed up my tripod and camera and walked back along the headland to Studland. It only took a few minutes for the sun to drop below the horizon and the clouds to reconsider their attitude before the sky kicked-off in a riot of fiery, molten hues, their intensity occupying the full range from pastel to neon. It was sensational, a genuine ‘you had to be there to see it’ moment. Attempting to translate the sense of drama and spectacle into the finite format of a painting would be futile. A photograph only partially does it justice.
As if that wasn’t reason enough to put your Cadmium Red and Quinacridone Gold to one side, have you considered the warning of ancient Danish mythology? As legend has it, you are playing god if you attempt to paint a sunset, for it is only the gods that are supposed to make them. In the next life you will be singled out and consigned only to paint mist and fog for eternity as a punishment (not so bad should you paint in watercolour, if I may say so.)
The case for not painting sunsets seems clear and there is little need to build a more robust argument than this. Simply, don’t paint sunsets. Unless, of course, you are Andy Evansen. I have no doubt that the Norse deities would gladly make an exception for the quality of his work, indeed if they have any integrity, they might even learn something.
Sunset Along Hwy 29 - Andy Evansen
It is probable that Andy requires no introduction to you; based in Minnesota, USA, his watercolour landscapes have rightly achieved international acclaim and are much in demand. His skills as a teacher demonstrate a deep understanding of the medium and his ability to communicate the importance of traditional values in landscape and watercolour painting continues to help amateur and fellow professional artists around the globe. I have been drawn to Andy’s work for some time and his ability to capture the evening light as it falls across land, sea and city. In particular I noticed that no one else paints sunsets quite like Andy does. You will have read from earlier posts of mine that the Golden Hour before sunset is a time that I also favour, the interchange between warm highlights and cool shadows being an aesthetic I find satisfying; I never quite make it to full sunset though. Watercolour is perhaps the most unsuitable medium for capturing these dramatic atmospheric events. It is a medium that lends itself more to subtle variations in colour, its transparent quality unable to give a full-on colour punch that can be achieved in oil paints, for example. That seems to have no impact on Andy’s sunset paintings – they are beautiful and he nails them every time.
Duluth Harbor at Sunset - Andy Evansen
The success of Andy’s sunset paintings rests on three factors: the simplicity of the supporting landscape, the tonal contrast between land and sky, and the controlled use of colour. They allow the sky to become the subject, enable it to glow, and help to create the illusion of realism. Sounds easy, right? Conveying simplicity in watercolour is difficult. Painting dark tones in watercolour without creating a muddy, overworked area of the painting is difficult. Knowing how to accurately present colour hue and temperature is difficult. Andy’s ‘simple’ style of painting is difficult to achieve, but always possible with guidance and much practice. His paintings, not just his sunsets, are perfect examples of the elusive paradox that watercolour landscape painters continually seek: confidence with restraint.
So, other than Mr Evansen’s deftly deployed brushes, where do these stunning skies come from? What causes them? While I run the risk of incurring the wrath of the Norse gods it must be said their involvement in creating sunsets is zero. There is a principle in physics known as Rayleigh scattering, after the eponymous British scientist, that helps to explain what’s going on. I won’t delve too deeply into the science, suffice to say that light rays are continually dispersed by particles in the atmosphere (dust, pollution and aerosols) and that blue light waves have a shorter wavelength than red light waves. At sunset, the sun is at a greater distance from Earth and as its light has to travel a greater distance to reach us, so the likelihood increases of the shorter light waves being scattered completely by atmospheric particles, while the longer light waves reach us. We see more red and yellow, less blue.
South China Sunset - Andy Evansen
For those who are new to Andy’s work, I hope that you find these sunset paintings as beautiful and inspirational as I do. Check out his website for fuller galleries of his work – it’s well worth your time (www.evansenartstudio.com) A short while back I purchased one of Andy’s DVDs – plein air painting in the Cotswolds. I have a critical view of much of the tutorials and courses that are available today - many are not worth your time or hard-earned cash. That’s not the case here. Andy’s teaching is excellent and I highly recommend it. You will find it engaging and helpful, no matter what level your painting is at.
There’s no more to say – it is a pleasure to feature Andy's work on the blog and it certainly speaks for itself. As for Odin, Thor, Freyr et al - I’m sorry, but I’ll take the risk. I think it’s time for me to start painting sunsets…...