How to Paint the Northern Lights With Watercolors

Updated on February 20, 2018
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Niina is an artist, illustrator, and art teacher who loves the world of watercolors.

Getting started

I was born in northern Finland, so I've had the privilege of seeing the northern lights several times in my life. They never fail to impress me. In this tutorial, I will show you how I paint the northern lights with watercolors and how you can paint them as well.

What You'll Need

  • Watercolor Paper: For this technique, I used A4 (8"x11") 300 gsm/150lb watercolor paper from Seawhite & Brighton. When you paint with watercolors, I'd recommend using paper that is at least 300 gsm. Any thinner than that and the paper easily becomes wobbly.
  • Paintbrushes: I suggest using bigger brushes to cover large areas. The results are neater, and the work gets finished faster. I use Windsor & Newton paintbrushes size 8 -10 for broader strokes and sizes 2-4 for the smaller details.
  • Watercolor Paint: I used my Windsor & Newton watercolor palette. The color scheme of the painting is rather limited, but I mainly used viridian green, ultramarine blue, and crimson red.
  • Acrylic Paint: I also used black acrylic paint to paint the trees.
  • Jar of Water
  • Sponge

The Wet-On-Wet Technique

The wet-on-wet technique I used involves wet paint on a wet surface. It's important that the paper stays in place, so I'd recommend taping it onto the table underneath. I often use masking tape or washi-tape to do this because they don't contain too much glue. This makes them easy to peel off without ripping the paper.

1. Add a Wash

Wet your paintbrush and go over the whole paper. Don't use any color at this point.

2. Drip the Paint

You can't see it from the pictures, but I'm using an easel to paint. This allows the paint to drop and create interesting effects. Start by applying the colors. I started with a mixture of green and blue and then moved on to purple. The colors mix in the paper. At this point, only your imagination is the limit for the colors you use.

3. Add Another Layer

After the first layer has dried, apply another layer and use brighter colors this time. Let the colors spread and mix with each other.

  • When watercolor dries, the color tone gets pale. This is why it's important to use paints with lots of pigment.

4. Paint the Northern Lights

If you've ever seen the lights, you'll notice that they have this ”curtain” type of look to them. You can easily create this effect with a sponge.

5. Add Snowflakes

Now, it's time to add some snowflakes! I used the toothbrush technique.

  • Apply some white acrylic paint on an old toothbrush or paintbrush.
  • Flick the paint from the brush with your hands or another brush. The closer you keep your brush to the paper, the easier it is to control where the splashes end up flying.

I must warn you that this technique is quite messy!

6. Paint the Trees

Add tall spruce trees to finish the landscape. For this, I used black acrylic paint. I wanted to create it from the perspective of a viewer looking up to the sky. The trees that are ”closer” are bigger, and the ones that are farther away are smaller. It's all about perspective.

How To Paint Northern Lights With Watercolors Tutorial

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and have a great time painting your own northern lights!

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