Photographing the Setting Sun for Your Sunset Paintings

sunset reference photoJust about everyone loves a beautiful sunset. That radiant burst of color at the beginning (sunrise) or end of the day. Because of this, sunset paintings are a favorite subject to paint for many artists. However, painting a sunset on location isn’t practical. Therefore I suggest taking your camera and shooting reference photos of some lovely sunsets to use back in your art studio.

Using reference photos to create your oil painting is a handy method that will save you time and also preserve your sunset in real life. No two sunsets are alike and they disappear quickly, therefore, taking a reference photo of your sunset can prove to be very useful. It allows you to paint your painting in the comfort of your art studio and at any time of the day or night.


western sunset oil painting“Cowboy Sunset”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


Photographing sunsets is a good idea especially if you want to paint them on canvas. Here’s why:

  • The sun sets quickly in the evening sky. It would be hard to get your painting done before it goes down.
  • No two sunsets are identical making it further difficult to paint one on location.
  • Painting a canvas on location would require it to be started and completed in the same session, however since the sun goes down so fast, this might not be possible.
  • Photographing the sunset means you can now take it with you back to the art studio and use the image as reference material for your painting.

Reference photos are a great way to forever record a fleeting moment such as a sunset. Here are some great tips for photographing a setting sun:

Tip 1 — Show up early for the shot. It may seem like a slow setting sun, but in reality a beautiful sunset is over with very quickly. Arriving early allows you the opportunity of getting several detail shots for shadows and also other objects that can be used to make your sunset painting a more interesting composition. Try to include objects other than the sun or clouds in your photo shoot. Also think about silhouetting some of the objects against the sky. You will also want to take some photos after the sun has already gone down for further reference when you go back to you studio to start your painting.

Tip 2 — Apply the rule of thirds when photographing the setting sun. Place the horizon either 2/3 of the way up or down in your shot for a more interesting composition. It all depends on your emphasis. If you have a dramatic sky then place the horizon line low to include more sky than ground, if the ground or water is more dynamic than the sky, then place the horizon high on your canvas to include more of what’s going on below. In addition, do not place the sun directly in the center of your frame. Place it over to the side to create more interest. Be sure to use these same tips when you transfer your composition to canvas.


Calvary at Sunset oil painting“Calvary at Sunset”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on stretched canvas

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For more information about the rule of thirds, see article titled “Creating Better Compositions in All Your Paintings“.

Tip 3 — Determine what orientation, either portrait or landscape, that you want to your painting to be. Most sunset paintings are landscape in orientation because this allows for the widest possible angle to capture on canvas the most sunset. However don’t dismiss a portrait orientation especially if you have something interesting going on in the foreground. Vertical sunset paintings offer much when it come to including other objects such as water towers, windmills or trees as silhouettes in your painting. Consider including some of those objects too.

Following these simple tips will help make it easier to compose your painting once you get back to the studio and start putting brush to canvas.

Sunsets are a favorite genre of Teresa Bernard. You can view her sunset oil paintings here.