Painting sunsets -
My "sunset spot" for painting sunsets en plein air

“My initial goal of practicing color studies quickly grew into the more ambitious goal of ‘capturing the sunset sky’ from life.” Martin Dimitrov shares his inspiring experience of painting a sunset en plein air.

By Martin Dimitrov

I first started to paint a sunset with the simple goal of improving my ability to mix color. And if color was what I was after, then I thought, “What better subject than the spectacular yet fleeting sunset of the Arizona desert.” One year and close to a hundred sunset-studies later, I realized that painting the sunset did not just improve my sensitivity to color — it has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had as an artist. In this short article, I hope to share my passion for painting the sunset from life, and maybe even inspire someone to give it a try. Come to think of it, if all else fails, you will still get to experience one of the most beautiful displays of nature.

A short drive from my home, on a dirt road behind the parking lot of an office building, is where I found my “sunset spot.” It is a wide-open vista facing to the west, across miles of low desert landscape perturbed only by the distant silhouette of South Mountain at the horizon. I specifically picked this spot because I wanted the sky to take the main stage and the ground below to be just an elegant frame.

Painting sunsets -
Sunset study on a clear sky

I started out by taping four small pieces of canvas (5 x 7 inches) to a larger board, so that I could quickly move from one study to the next. I would take five to 15 minutes on each study, before the colors would change too dramatically and I would be forced to stop and start again on a new study. Thus, on each trip, I would go home with about four or five studies after about an hour of work.

Painting sunsets -
Sunset study with clouds (facing south)
Painting sunsets -
Sunset study from a different spot; facing west, just minutes after the sunset

My initial studies were not very successful. My colors were off, values were off, and I was simply too slow. However, I knew that I had found a subject so beautiful and different each time that I would not be able to resist approaching it again. My initial goal of practicing color studies quickly grew into the more ambitious goal of “capturing the sunset sky” from life. The technical practice of color would naturally be a part of that process.

The race against time kept forcing me to seek ways in which to simplify and paint faster. For example, I experimented with toning the canvases beforehand with different colors that I might anticipate seeing. I also purchased multiple identical brushes (of the type that I most commonly use) so that I would have a clean brush available at hand to mix a clean color fast (without having to clean an old brush, because for some tints only a clean brush is appropriate). I developed a sense of when to mix a new color on the palette and when to shift a tint by painting on top of another one directly on the canvas — which gave me speed in addition to a flexibility in handling edges.

To start, I only painted the sunset on a clear sky. Thus, I did not have to worry about the shapes and colors of the moving clouds. However, as I gradually gained confidence, I started seeking out the sunset on cloudy or even rainy days. It is on those days that each sunset is most unique and the challenge of capturing a piece of it is even more tempting.

Painting sunsets -
My “sunset spot” on a rainy day. Rainy clouds are covering the sunset; however, subtle purples are still visible. For these studies, I used a wash of alizarin for an undertone on the canvases.

My quest to capture the colors of the sunset sky is far from over. Since I started my color studies a year ago, I have found several other beautiful sunset spots near my home. I have also found a couple of sunrise spots facing east for a morning practice. I continue working towards painting faster and bigger. I believe that my painting skills have benefited tremendously from this practice. But this is only a part of it. The opportunity to enjoy the beauty around me is a big part of the reason why I wanted to be a painter in the first place. In the last year alone, I have enjoyed more sunsets than in all my previous years combined.

Learn more about Martin Dimitrov and his work at

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  1. Your article is very helpful. We are kindred spirits. I am painting the sunrise every morning. Since December 4, 2018 I have painted the sunrise almost every day rain, shine, frost, or snow. This is the most beneficial exercise I have found for overall learning plein air painting. So far I have around 42 paintings. Every day is a new experience and new learning.

  2. Thank you for your article! Sorolla’s ‘Apuntes’ (notes) inspired me to try to paint sunset shapes and colors while looking east over the ocean from my balcony in Florida. With watercolor and 4 or 5 6×6 squares going at once I had no goal other than to really observe, learn and record what happens over the ocean at sunset. The resulting paintings are somewhat abstract and show how varied sunset light and colors can be. I have about 70 of these little paintings now and this routine has provided the same benefit as two minute poses in life drawing – it keeps me on my toes and forces a truthfulness I might not access otherwise. Working en plein air is the best!


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