Painting a convincing sky can be tricky, especially a night sky where the colours aren't so intuitive. I have always found it especially hard to paint auroras because they're usually these intense shades of green that don't feel like they belong in nature, and the gradients between the bright places and the default sky colour are not easy to render.

If you're having trouble painting the Northern Lights, I recommend trying the FREE Demo from watercolourist and aerospace engineer Geethu!  

Step 1: The Sketch 

Geethu's art style is rendered chiefly with the paint itself, so the sketch is minimal. All you need to indicate is the little campsite and horizon.

Don't press too hard on the pencil, or it will mark the paper. After this, wet the entire sky portion of the page thoroughly. Geethu adds water a few times over to ensure it's evenly soaked.  

Step 2: The Lightest Lights 

Remember that you work from light to dark in watercolour because you can always make an area darker, but you can't restore white. If you accidentally use too many dark colours, you can always try a lifting technique! It won't be a perfect fix, but it will help! 

Yellow is the lightest colour, that is where we'll start. Use a size 8 round brush to most easily replicate Geethu's technique; I am using a squirrel hair brush, but you can use whatever you like.  

Step 3: Deeper Color 

You may feel intimidated by this part but be brave; it will work. Adding streaks of red and then soaking the page in bright green is not what you think to do when you want to make a realistic sky!

Frequently, when we learn to paint, we need to accept a counterintuitive way of seeing things. This is no exception. The colours that are really truly there won't look correct until everything is in place at the end, giving them context. 

Be generous with that green! Put it all around, everywhere except the tent details!  

Step 4: Darkening the Sky

Geethu uses an indigo colour that works well for this step, and I made my own by mixing blues, browns, and reds. If the blue is too blue, it will make teal with the green instead of darkening the overall colour, so you will have to dull it down a bit if your pigments are like mine.

You'll find that once you add the darkness to the ground and the edges of the sky, those wild colours from the previous step won't feel so wrong. 

Step 5: Background Trees 

Geethu painted these trees wet-on-wet, and I let my page dry first. I didn't see an enormous difference in the end product, although I had to work a bit harder to get the softened look.

If your page is damp instead of properly wet, I recommend waiting until the paint is dry to add these trees. 

Step 6: Main Trees 

Here's where it's best to be a bit more cautious because you are using black watercolour straight out of the tube to add some silhouetted trees in the foreground. These trees will frame the composition and make a more lifelike scene.

Keep your hand steady and plan each line before you execute because you won't be able to undo anything. It might intimidate you, but it's really okay if you make a mistake because effort at painting is never wasted, even if the piece doesn't work out. 

Step 7: Foreground 

Keep the black paint, add shadows beneath the trees, and suggest terrain variation. You'll find that this ties the piece together, grounds it, and makes it look natural.  

You can add more details at the end, like campfire smoke and more details on the tent. We've got a great article on how to paint fire if you'd like to learn more! 

It's a lovely finishing touch to add white gouache stars in the darker part of the sky. Don't overdo the stars or space them too deliberately, or the natural effect will be lost.  

I hope you're happy with your finished painting! If this one was tricky for you, don't be too hard on yourself. This technique involves a lot of counterintuitive colour choices.

It's not every day that you're supposed to use straight black watercolour instead of mixing your own softer version. It's also not every day that you use vast swathes of bright green for a realistic sky!

In the end, art "rules" should be tossed out when your judgement overrides them. The better you know the rules, the better you understand when to break them.

If Geethu's painting process inspired you, I recommend that you check out her Mini Workshop. She explains things in a straightforward way and really knows her craft. Want more fun art classes? Subscribe to our email newsletter for more content like this.

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.

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