Painting Sunrises - Tips and Tricks

Are you a morning bird looking to get some painting done in the early hours of the day? Perhaps you’re like me, a night owl that is curious about what those sunrises look like after years of blackout curtains and late nights. Maybe you are just trying to do this annoying challenge that I posted and aiming to get a sunrise painting completed before the 2024 new year.

Whatever it is, I’ve been painting sunrises for the past few months and have completed more than 50 paintings to prove it. These paintings have taught me so much, and are a fantastic way to paint regularly with a busy schedule, reset your circadian rhythm, and practice mindfulness. Today I’m going to share some tips and tricks to help make your sunrise paintings have a better chance of being successful, and hopefully a little less painful.


While you definitely can just roll out of bed and roam down the street until you find a spot, I highly recommend you plan the night before where you want to go. The sun rises so fast that you won’t have time to think about the perfect composition. Do some research on some best sunrise spots in your area. Scouting out spots beforehand can be helpful as long as you are mindful about where the sun’s path will be.

photo by Jon Martin

You’ll also want to prepare your art supplies. There’s nothing worse than watching a sunrise happen right before you as you fumble to unscrew paint lids and scrape your palette clean. Top up those palettes with paint, clean your brushes, make sure you have everything you need. It is VERY useful to tone your canvases/papers ahead. I like putting down a warm pink and yellow combination but that’s something to experiment with.


Are you a serial snoozer? Me too. But in this case you really want as much time as possible. Aim to get at your destination a good 10-15 minutes BEFORE the sunrise (you can check sunrise times on your weather apps). Those delicious cotton candy pink clouds are often found before the sun peeks over the horizon.

One thing that has helped make waking up less awful is investing in a sunrise clock. There are lots out there now, I have the more pricey Philips smartsleep, but there are plenty of cheaper options. The most important part is finding one that slowly lights up and changes color from a red to white light. I usually wake up before the sounds go off, and it has really improved my morning mood.


You might be tempted to sleepily check your weather app in bed, looking for a cloud coverage so you can justify sleeping in. At least here in California, I’d say 90% of the time when it says it’s cloudy, that makes for the BEST sunrises. I usually double check with the weather radar. 

 In fact, one of the most memorable sunrises was when there were scattered showers. The sun created a brilliant but brief yellow glow, and I was able to watch two coyotes hunt in the field before me. 


I’ve had a lot of encounters that have made me a little uneasy, whether it’s questionable wildlife crossings, bad weather, or creepy people that don’t go away. Early mornings have been when I feel the safest, and the only people out and about are usually folks with a mission to get their morning walks in. They rarely ever even stop. I also always have pepper spray in my pocket, and am alert to my surroundings. It helps that I also scale a very steep hill to paint atop of, and can always hear when people are huffing up it. Be safe out there!


Depending on where you are in this world, you’ll likely need to dress warm. Even in our warmer temps in the bay area, I will layer two down jackets, double up on my socks, and don a beanie that really emphasizes my unusually round skull. People often forget how cold it can get if you’re just standing or sitting in place, so layer up!


Leave those ambitious 16x20 panels at home, and just bring an array of small canvases. In the beginning, start with TINY panels or papers and bring multiple, because you’ll likely want to paint more than one.  4”x4” or 3”x3” is a great size, but I also really love my long panoramic panels. 

Pick subjects that are simple. Think big shapes! Once you get a feel for it, you can start to push yourself on sizes and compositions.


It will be mighty tempting to do what we plein-air painters call, “Chase the light”. The sunrise colors change VERY fast and the urge to keep changing all the colors to what is newest will be strong. Try to block in the painting in under 5 minutes with a large brush (a fan brush works great!), and then work on refining so you won’t be as confused when the light changes. If need be, just do several 5 minutes studies and touch them up at home so you won’t be tempted to change the colors too much.


Give yourself a HUGE pat on the back for doing what most people would never think of. You just practiced an immense amount of self discipline and even if your paintings didn’t work out, it’s deserving of high praise. 

Many people WILL struggle. This is a very uncomfortable challenge, and it is very frustrating to try to paint a lightsource that changes so quickly. Remember that you will improve with perseverance, but also just enjoy the moment. Feel that early sunshine on your face, give notice to the wildlife around you. Reward yourself with a casual stroll and take pictures of this world you rarely encounter. 

Don’t forget to SHARE! I’d absolutely love it if you tagged me @heatherihnart in your sunrise posts. You will inspire so many others with this healthy creative habit, while learning so much.

In conclusion, there’s no “PAINTING” without “PAIN”. Sunrise plein-air is not for the weak, but they will improve your painting skills beyond measure. Embrace that feeling of discomfort and enjoy these amazing light shows that we’re all gifted on a daily basis. Happy Painting!

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