How do you Paint a Turner Sunset?

Tuscan Dawn

Tate Britain

Last night I received a tweet containing a link to the Tate blog by Alison Smith from one of my followers Jorgelina Vega. Alison is lead curator of “Watercolour” and Curator (Head of British Art to 1900), Tate Britain.The blog contained a fascinating little video by Mike Chaplin. It’s one of a series he’s made on how to paint with watercolour. In the video he featured one of Turner’s watercolours on display at the Watercolour Exhibition at Tate Britain.

It features a careful analysis of Turner’s paper, technique and colours. Mike showed how Turner might have tackled his sunset scene my doing a watercolour of the Thames.


All this reminded me of the difficulties and joy I have experienced as a watercolourist over the last 30 years in painting sunsets and sunrises on location. In May 2007 I was painting in Venice in my small leather bound sketchbook. On one particular afternoon, we were on the island of Burano, famous for its lace and brightly coloured houses. We spent a pleasant afternoon on the island, which included a quick sketchbook watercolour of one of the canals. Then we waited for the vaporetto to take us back to our hotel, La Calcina formally Ruskin’s house.

I just had time to blast off a rapid watercolour in about 15 minutes. I managed to nail the sky and reflections of a Venetian sunset in two washes. The first was a base wash of Lemon Yellow, the second was a combination of Manganese Blue, purple and Rose Madder. It dried just in time for me to indicate the outline of the nearby island from which the vaporetto seemed to come from. By then, the colours of the sky had completely changed. This is the challenge one has when painting sunsets on location. By the time your first wash has dried, the scene has changed. This is why Turner often carried a selection of tinted papers so that he could pick the colour and tone closest to the one he had in front of him.

Sketchbook watercolour painted in Oman at dawn.

Painting in Oman

I have experienced similar challenges when painting sunrises too. In many respects, they are even more difficult as you start off in semi darkness, trying to imagine what the colours are going to be over the next thirty minutes or so. The sketchbook study above of a sunrise over Muttrah in Oman was tackled in two washes for the sky, the same colours as mention previously, followed by a combination of Raw Sienna and a purple for the foreground rocks.

In June I went to see the Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain. To quote the introduction in the small booklet which accompanies the exhibition, “This exhibition explores what watercolour can achieve in terms of technique and expression that no other medium can, and why it is capable of producing an astonishing variety of effects, from subtle atmospheric washes to brilliant translucent colour.” There are some stunning paintings on display including one by Turner. It is well worth a visit if you are spending any time in London until 21st August.

2 thoughts on “How do you Paint a Turner Sunset?”

  1. Thanking you and you did a fine painting of a sunset. Ive yet to tackle water colours. I really think that the impressionists were influenced by the,great Turner. I was actually looking up Turner William who paints the Industrial north and I love the,atmosphere he creates. Bye for now, Regards Mary Ann Partridge


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