Finland, MN

How to Paint the Northern Lights With Watercolors

Niina Pekantytär

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 watercolours 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 watercolour paper from Seawhite & Brighton. When you paint with watercolours, 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 watercolour palette. The colour 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 colour 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 drip and creates interesting effects. Start by applying the colours. I started with a mixture of green and blue and then moved on to purple. The colours mix in the paper. At this point, only your imagination is the limit for the colours you use.

3. Add Another Layer

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

  • When watercolour dries, the colour 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.

The artwork is finished!

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN

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