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How to Paint a Watercolor Desert Sunset

Desert sunset with Saguaro Cactus

This photo of a sunset in the Sonora Desert in Arizona was the inspiration for a desert sunset watercolor painting.

This photo of a sunset in the Sonora Desert in Arizona was the inspiration for a desert sunset watercolor painting.

Even a beginner can paint a desert sunset like this

This watercolor of a desert sunset can be a beginner's watercolor project.

This watercolor of a desert sunset can be a beginner's watercolor project.

Desert Sunset Photograph Inspires Painting

The desert sunset photograph above shows the beauty of a red and gold sky punctuated with dark clouds and shadowed saguaro cacti. This striking view is the inspiration for a desert sunset watercolor painting, and makes a good exercise for the beginning watercolor painter.

Wet-on-Wet Watercolor Technique

Use some simple wet-on-wet techniques of beginning watercolor painting to paint this desert sunset landscape. By following the step-by-step video, you can bring your own sunset painting to life. Have fun with this loose painting style and colorful sunset. Add silhouettes of clouds and saguaro cacti, and you'll have a postcard-pretty picture!


Windsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors

Get Ready to Paint a Watercolor Desert Sunset!

Before jumping into your painting, gather your supplies and prepare your painting area. If you are new to watercolor painting, you may want to refer to my previous article, Baby Steps to Beginning Watercolor Painting for a basic supply list and some practice brush techniques.

Supply List for Desert Sunset Watercolor Landscape:

  • Heavy quality watercolor paper (140 lb. recommended)
  • Water container
  • 3/4" flat wash brush
  • #10 round brush
  • Palette or plain white plate
  • Gamboge Yellow
  • Cadmium red
  • Payne's Gray
  • Natural Tint
  • Hair dryer
  • A few paper towels to blot excess water from brush

How to set up your painting area

One of the nice things about watercolor painting is the fact that you don't need a large space, but your space should be organized for optimum use of your materials. First, place your smooth- surfaced table in a spot with good, natural light, if possible. Your set-up should include:

  • A piece of watercolor paper taped on all sides to a flat board. This should be directly in front of you.
  • A palette with the four colors you will be using and space in the center to swirl your paint with water to get it to the right consistency. This should be placed to right of your paper if you are right-handed, to your left if you are left-handed.
  • A few paper towels should be folded and placed just below your palette so that they are handy for blotting your brush if needed.
  • Fill two containers filled with clean water, one for wetting your paper and one for rinsing your brushes and place to your right side just above your palette.

Note: By placing palette, water and blotting towels to your right, you will avoid having to reach over your painting to rinse or load your brush. An unplanned drip can mess up your painting!

Watercolor blocks

GO! You are ready to begin painting!

Remember that this is a beginning painting. It should be loose and fun. Each person has a different touch, so each painting will be different. Enjoy the experience!

Here are the step-by-step instructions for painting the desert sunset watercolor with the saguaro cacti:

  1. Wet paper with 3/4" brush, then load brush with yellow ocher and brush across sky.
  2. Do not overwork! The wet paper will help blend the color.
  3. Add irregular strips of Cadmium Red to the sky.
  4. While the paper is still damp, use a #10 round brush loaded with Payne's Gray to block in some dark clouds.
  5. Add more scattered dark clouds.
  6. Deepen some of the clouds if needed, but don't overwork. Don't try to blend your colors. They will blend with the other wet colors on the wet paper.
  7. Use your 3/4" flat brush to add a dark foreground on the bottom 1/3 of the painting.
  8. Use a #10 round brush with Neutral Tint to add various sized saguaro cacti.
    When your painting is dry, remove the tape and mat your painting.


Final Painting of Desert Sunset

Watercolor Painting by Stephanie Henkel

Watercolor Painting by Stephanie Henkel


Remember that your painting will be your own creation. It will be your interpretation of what you see, and should be a fun and rewarding experience. If you are a beginner, this painting will help you to learn how to apply your paints to a wet background and demonstrate the way in which wet paint can flow together for beautiful effects. Just for fun, do try this again using different colors in the sky and foreground.

Scroll to Continue

I hope you've enjoyed painting along with me to create this simple desert sunset scene.

Happy Painting!


Copyright ©2012 by Stephanie Henkel

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Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on April 27, 2018:

Thank you Bushra. I think that it's important for beginners to start with something very simple and easy. It could certainly be done more elaborately as one's skills are honed. Thank you for your message. Happy Painting!

bushraib on April 26, 2018:

I absolutely love watercolor painting, it's so fun and calm and soothing. This painting is simple and pretty, love it!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on September 19, 2017:

Laura Lee - I'm so glad this was helpful to you. I've taught this technique to beginners without any art experience, and they did find it fun. Using the same technique for the sunset background, we also did silhouettes of horses, lighthouses, birds and trees - the choices are endless, yet the finished pieces are all different.

Laura Lee on September 19, 2017:

I've been teaching a variety of art classes at a community arts school, but none completely focused on watercolor. I'm not well practiced in wc myself and am scheduled now to teach a watercolor class to adults. This step by step you've created provides the basic instruction, meaningful practice and a finished piece to be proud of. Thank you!!!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on June 20, 2014:

Torrilynn - Watercolor painting is a great hobby! I do hope that you'll pick up those brushes again soon. Thanks for stopping in to read and comment!

torrilynn on June 20, 2014:

I think that this particular watercolor sunset is absolutely beautiful. thanks for the tips and suggestions. they are much appreciated. maybe one day I will get back to painting the way that I use to love it so much when I was younger.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on April 23, 2013:

Joanwz- Glad to hear that you are picking up your pastels again! I'm sure you can do lovely sunset scenes with them! Thanks for stopping in to read and comment!

Joan Whetzel on April 23, 2013:

I've kind of gotten out of my pastels, This has inspired me to get back to it. Thanks

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on March 16, 2013:

Livingsta - Glad you enjoyed my hub on painting a watercolor desert sunset! Thanks for your comments!

livingsta from United Kingdom on March 16, 2013:

Interesting hub with step by step instructions and a video to top it all up. Thank you for sharing this. A very useful hub for people who want to take a step towards painting!

Votes up and sharing!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on March 01, 2013:

Kathryn Stratford - It's wonderful that you gave watercolor painting a try and enjoyed it. No one starts out painting a masterpiece, but we can all enjoy the process of producing a work of art and learning from our efforts. The world is full of inspiration! I do hope you'll keep trying to capture those special beautiful moments!

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on March 01, 2013:

I have tried my hand at watercolors before. I wasn't great, but it was so relaxing, and it is satisfying to craft something like that. I like the instruction you gave, including providing the list of supplies, as well as the inspiration photo. Inspiration is all around us! There were times I would have loved to capture a moment like that. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 07, 2013:

Jools99 - Do have fun with your painting!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on January 07, 2013:

Trees it it! Great idea. I do love trying new things and I think dear daughter already has some paints somewhere. Thanks again.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 07, 2013:

Jools99 - I can understand a reluctance on your part to paint a desert if you are living in England. Why not try the sky and background as described, then, instead of painting in Cacti, paint in some silhouettes of trees? The technique is the same, and you might enjoy painting something more familiar better. Thanks for reading my hub, and I do hope that you'll try some watercolor paintings!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on January 07, 2013:

Stephanie, your painting looks great and you've explained this all really if I could only tap into my artistic talent gene....I am prepared to try this though a desert scene may confuse my friends here in old desert free England! I might start with a desert and then move onto the beach and seascape near my home :o)

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 06, 2013:

jtrader - I'm glad you think so! Thanks for stopping by to read and comment on my water color hub.

jtrader on January 06, 2013:

This is a theme everyone would like to try. Thanks for sharing.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 06, 2013:

Thank you Peggy! I can't resist photographing beautiful sunsets wherever we go, so it was natural to try my hand at painting these saguaros at sunset. How interesting to add touches of watercolor to black and white lithographs. I remember that my uncle used to hand color black and white photographs before color photography was common. Your lithographs must have a beautiful vintage look. Thanks so much for your comments and the share!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 06, 2013:

Hi Stephanie,

What a wonderful tutorial on how to paint a wet on wet watercolor painting. Your end result of the saguaro cactus and the Arizona desert sky was impressive. I have only dabbled a few times with watercolors and am currently touching up a black and white lithograph with hints of watercolor. Nice touch with the video! From your travels, you should have all kinds of subject matter for your paintings! Up, useful and will share.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on December 09, 2012:

Hi Cathy Fidelibus, I often do as you do when painting with watercolors. The freedom of flowing colors can be inspirational, and sometimes just going with the flow as the painting evolves produces the most beautiful results. Thanks for visiting my hub and for your comments!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on December 09, 2012:

Hi Gail, I'm so glad you enjoyed the video and instructions for painting a watercolor desert sunset. This sunset scene is one of my favorites from a trip to Arizona, and when I painted it, I realized that the sunset colors and the silhouettes of the cacti would make a fun project for beginners. Thanks so much for your nice comment and for the votes and share!

Ms. Immortal from NJ on December 09, 2012:

Very beautiful painting and excellent instruction. Water color is my favorite medium and wet on wet is the most fun for me, really gets the creative juices flowing. Sometimes I don't know what I'm going to paint I just let water color flow until it resembles something that takes it in another direction.

voted up!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on December 09, 2012:

Wow! This is truly an awesome series. Love the step by step directions and it was fun to watch the watercolor painting come together in the video that you made!

Impressive, yet simple, what more could a beginning artist ask for?

Am voting this up across the board except for funny and sharing.

Also gave it a 5 star rating.

Hub Hugs,


Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on December 06, 2012:

Joanwz - I don't have much experience with pastels, but it looks like a fascinating medium. I'm happy to have given you a little inspiration to get back to your art! Thanks for stopping in to read and comment!

Joan Whetzel on December 06, 2012:

I draw with pastels, though it's been a while. This has inspired me to go back to my art area and draw some more.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 29, 2012:

Great Denise! Enjoy!

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on November 29, 2012:

Thanks so much for your encouragement. I just finished reading the other hub you wrote about beginning watercolor painting and will take the list of materials with me into Rocky Mount this weekend. :)

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 29, 2012:

Hi Denise - I'm thrilled that you are thinking of giving watercolor painting another try!

I think the paints that come in a little jar that you are thinking of are poster paints. While they are water based, they don't have the transparency of artists' watercolors. I would recommend that you get a basic set of tube watercolors in student or professional grade. Windsor Newton paints are my favorites, and they come in small tubes. There is also their student grade which is the Cottman brand.

There are many different grades of paper. The better the grade of paper you use, the better your results will be. If you wish to start out with an inexpensive, medium grade paper, you can try a pad of Canson paper. A better grade would be either individual sheets or a watercolor block of 140 lb. , 100% cotton paper. I like the Arches brand, but there are some others that are good, too. An art store like Jerry's Artarama would offer the most choices, but a store like Michael's has the basics.

One bit of advice is to just go with the flow of your painting. Watercolors sometimes take on a life of their own. If you see something lovely happening, let it happen rather than trying to over-control it. Sometimes the most beautiful paintings are serendipitous! Do have fun!

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on November 29, 2012:

This is awesome, Stephanie. I've always wanted to paint watercolors, but haven't had the courage. My father was an artist and a perfectionist when it came to painting. He had much patience with his grandkids, but not so much when we were growing up and I think my attempts were thwarted by his criticism and 'take overs'. I eventually gave up and told myself I was not creative in that way.

I have a couple of questions-those tubes of paint-I thought that was an oil based paint and water color paint came in a little jar??? (I am sure I sound quite ignorant about all of this). Second question: what is the best paper to use that will be easy to mat or frame or 'save' in some way in case I decide my attempt is worthy to hang onto. :) Thanks.

The video was wonderful! A wonderful visual lesson (and I loved the music). You did a great job with all of this. Up/U/I/B/A I'm sharing.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 19, 2012:

AudraLeigh - Thank you for the complement, Audra! I do love desert sunsets in the Southwest, and this painting is a fun project for beginning or intermediate painters. Thank you for stopping by to view and comment on my hub!

AudraLeigh on November 19, 2012:

I love your artwork!!!! Wonderful painting at the top of the page! Great tutoral! I see your love for Arizona shining through!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 18, 2012:

Prasetio30 - How lovely to receive comments from a fellow artist. I'm so glad that you found some of my tips useful.Thank you for stopping by to view my article. It was nice to hear from you!

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on November 18, 2012:

Hi, Stephanie. How are you? I am glad to see you again. I love painting and I found something beautiful here about painting watercolor desert Sunset. Useful tips from you. Voted up!


Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 29, 2012:

Moonlake - You never now until you give it a try! Perhaps you can get together with your sister and have a painting day together? Thanks for stopping in to read and comment on my watercolor hub!

moonlake from America on October 29, 2012:

Enjoyed your hub. This looks easy. I wish I was good at this kind of thing. I have a sister that can draw anything. I may try it someday. Voted uP!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 21, 2012:

DeborahNeyens - Thanks for your comments, Deborah. This is my first attempt at a video, so I'm pleased that people are finding it helpful. Do give it a try - you may be surprised at your hidden artistic talents! :)

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on October 21, 2012:

Great hub, Stephanie! The video is a nice touch. You make it look so easy to create beautiful artwork. I am no artist, but I'm going to pin this and maybe give it a try someday.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 17, 2012:

KDuBarry03 - Haha, glad I could give you a surprise today! I'm so glad you liked my article, and hope that you do find time to get back to drawing and sketching. It's a grate creative outlet. Thanks so much for stopping in to read and comment, and thanks for the share!

KDuBarry03 on October 17, 2012:

Wow, never knew you were the painting type! Very beautiful pictures and great info, Stephanie. I used to be into drawing/sketching; maybe I should get back into it after this semester is over. Voted up and shared!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 16, 2012:

Kashmir56 - Thank you for your kind comments! I can never resist photographing a beautiful sunset, and it is a delight to be able to paint one. I hope that others will also give it a try!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on October 16, 2012:

I love your beautiful painting of the sunset it is so awesome !

Well done and vote up and more !!!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 16, 2012:

Carol7777 - Thank you for the complement, Carol. I can understand your frustration - it's so easy to try to overpaint when doing watercolors. I also like them because they are easy to store and easy to carry along when traveling. I'm glad you found the instructions easy to follow. I hope it will inspire to give watercolor painting another chance!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 16, 2012:

Mary615 - I'm so glad that you found the video and instructions easy to follow. It isn't always easy to explain a painting technique! Thanks so much for your comments -- I do hope you will give watercolor painting a try!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 16, 2012:

Tillsontitan - I think that artists who begin painting with acrylics and oils may have a more difficult time adjusting to watercolors as watercolors are so easy to overwork. It's important to remember that your lightest values are placed first, and white paint is seldom added - the white in a watercolor is the paper itself. If my article helps you to try it again, I'm so glad! Thanks for your lovely comments, votes and shares!

carol stanley from Arizona on October 16, 2012:

Your painting is lovely. Good instructions for a tough medium to paint. I have tried watercolors off and on for many years and usually end up frustrated. I like watercolors as they are easy to store and stay fresh for several days. So I go back to acrylics and going to try my water mixable oils. You did a great job and a beginner could easily follow the instructions. Voting UP.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on October 16, 2012:

Wow! I am totally impressed; not only for your video, but for your easy to follow instructions. Great job!

I am an artist in other medias, but I've never tried water painting, but maybe now I will.

Voted this UP, and will share.

Mary Craig from New York on October 16, 2012:

WoW! This was great from start to finish! Your photograph, your instructions, your video...superb. Your talent shines through every bit of this hub.

I have never had any luck with water color, always found it easier to work with oils but I see from your hub and video, I overworked it! My husband's grandmother was like Grandma Moses and could paint anything. She tried to teach me but I couldn't get the hang of water color. Your excellent hub could change that!

Voted five stars and all the way across except funny. Shared and pinned!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 15, 2012:

2besure - This was my first attempt at a video, but I do hope to do more of them. I hope it was helpful. There are many articles and videos on learning how to draw and paint if you are interested in teaching yourself. I do think that there are simple subjects you can successfully paint in watercolor, even if you haven't done much of it. Hope this hub was helpful. Thanks for stopping in to comment, and thanks so much for the share!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 15, 2012:

Mhatter99 - We all seem to have some talents that come more easily to us, and sometimes we are just more interested in developing certain talents. I'm sure your other talents are many! :) Thank you for stopping in to view and comment on my hub!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 15, 2012:

RogerSanchezJr - Thanks so much for your very nice comment on my hub on how to paint a watercolor desert sunset. Glad you enjoyed it!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 15, 2012:

Janine Huldie - Thanks so much for stopping in to read. I hope your husband enjoys my hub and that it gives him some inspiration. Perhaps he'll inspire you to give it a try, too! Thanks so much for your very nice comments and the share. I appreciate it!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on October 15, 2012:

How I admire you. Painting and drawing are trade offs for my other talents. In other words. though I've tried, I suck. But thank you for trying.

Pamela Lipscomb from Charlotte, North Carolina on October 15, 2012:

So cool, you did you own video! I have been threatening to take an art course, but I understand that water color is very difficult. I hear that how to drawing videos do well on Youtube. Hope you do more of them! Voted up, Tweeted and FB!

Roger A Sanchez Jr from Sequoyah County of Oklahoma on October 15, 2012:

Awesome painting! So beautiful!

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on October 15, 2012:

Stephanie, in my youth I tried my hand at painting and learned very quickly I just had no artistic ability and then I met my husband who has some much artistic talent it amazes me daily. I will be passing this on to him to take a look at. Have also voted up and shared too!!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 15, 2012:

Unknown spy - Thanks so much for your comment! I did have fun painting this scene from one of my favorite photographs of Arizona, and I believe that even a beginner can do it.

DragonBallSuper on October 15, 2012:

Wow!! marvelous painting. I really love it. beautiful, Step.

sharing this.

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