TUTORIAL: How to Paint the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

Today I’m showing you an easy method to paint an Aurora Borealis that almost paints itself.

The painting is done in three steps – creating the Auroral Borealis background, letting that dry completely for several hours, and then adding silhouetted trees and the ground. Actual painting time is around 30 – 45 minutes, but you’ll need at least a couple of hours drying time in between.

Video

I explain a little more in the video, while giving more of a bare bones step by step in the writing.

Preparation

 

Moisten the watercolors you’ll use. Add several drops of water to the colors, then let them sit for a few minutes.

The colors I used:

  • Hansa Yellow Light
  • Hans Yellow Deep
  • Vermilion
  • Permanent Rose
  • Manganese Blue Mixture
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Burnt Sienna

Add a piece of tape to cover the unglued portion of your watercolor block. Note, that if you aren’t using a block, you should tape your paper down but be sure you can pick up whatever it is taped to, so you can swirl the wet paint.

This can get messy. Put down something under your block to catch drips. Consider wearing an apron.

Fill your Water Mister so you have plenty of water.

Just before you are ready to paint, mist your paper thoroughly with water. You want it wet enough to have standing puddles.

Twirl the block in the light to look for places that aren’t wet, and continue to spray until you’ve wet it all.

Process For The Background

  1. With your soft brush, pick up a juicy load of paint that drips from the brush.
  2. Tap the color onto the paper in two or three places.
  3. Tilt the painting in all directions to let the paint swirl.
  4. Mist your paper often to keep the paint flowing.
  5. Repeat the above with another color.
  6. Keep repeating until the entire paper is covered.

Tips and Technique

You can add more of a color you’ve already used rather than adding all new colors. Lots of different colors can be exciting. But, too many colors can lead to the dreaded mud. I recommend no more than 5 or 6 colors. Feel free to use less if you wish.

The colors and order in which I added them: Hansa Yellow Light, Vermilion, Manganese Blue Mixture, Hansa Yellow Deep, Cobalt Blue, Permanent Rose. I then added a little more Hansa yellow Light, more Manganese Blue Mixture, and Cobalt Blue.

Use bright colors – yellows, reds, blues instead of browns, purples, grays or blacks. Let the oranges, purples and greens mix from the flowing paint instead of adding them.

Let the colors run freely from top to bottom, but limit the side to side movement. You want to make sure to keep some areas of each pure color. If you see brown or gray developing, stop swirling and consider the background done.

Those browns and grays are neutrals (sometimes mud) that happen when you mix certain colors. Mixing orange and blue will make a neutral. The same for yellow and purple, and for red and green. Don’t worry if you get some neutral – it makes a nice contrast. Just try to keep it to small areas.

Mist the paper as needed to keep it wet, and the paint flowing. Some colors will flow more easily than others.

Let the paint dry completely. I usually wait at least two or three hours at least. You can speed this up by using a blow dryer or heat gun but this will result in colors that aren’t as bright.

Touch your nail to a few spots on the paper when you think it is dry. If it feels cool, it is not yet dry.

Don’t start the next step until you are sure the background is dry.

Read the practice session, even if you don’t intend to practice, because you’ll need to know the steps.

Practicing the Trees

If you are not familiar with painting fir/pine trees, I recommend practicing on a piece of scrap paper before painting on the background you’ve just created.

Use light pressure on your brush at all times.

Painting Trunks

  1. Load up the flat brush with a milk-thick mix of paint. 
  2. Holding the flat brush perpendicular (at a right angle) to the page, draw a 2-3 inch straight line for a tree trunk.

Painting Thin Branches

All the branches should curve in the same direction – either down, up or just slightly curved outward.

Only use thin branches for trees that are standing alone or slightly separated from others.

  1. Load up the flat brush with a milk-thick mix of paint. 
  2. Using one corner of the brush and tilting it to slight angle, start with branches at the bottom of the trunk. 
  3. Sweep outward from the trunk, making the branches shorter as you go up the tree.

Painting Thick Branches

  1. The brush should have the same tilt as above, but use half to all of the brush’s edge. 
  2. Begin at the trunk and sweep outward.
  3. Continue to add branches making them shorter as you go up the trunk.
    • Overlap some of the trees. Let the overlapped trees run together into one large shape.

Painting The Distant Trees

  1. Mix Manganese  Blue Mixture with a little black and enough water so the paint is thin but not dripping from the brush.
  2. These trees will be partially covered by the next set, but paint the entire tree anyway so they’ll show through any gaps.
  3. Use the steps from the practice section to paint 5 – 7 trees.
  4. Vary the trees. 
    •  Make sure some trees are lower and some higher. You don’t want your trees to form a straight line at either the top or bottom. 
    • Make some of with fuller branches. 
    •  Run some of them together so they create one shape.

Painting The Silhouette Trees

  1. Mix up quite a bit of the Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna to create a black. Add enough water to make the mix about the consistency of milk.
  2. Repeat the steps for the first line of trees, but make your trees darker. Cover over some of the first line of trees.
  3. To help keep your line of trees looking natural do these things.
  4. Let the painting dry.
  5. Add a thick mixture of manganese  Blue Mixture along the center of the tree and some of the branches. Dance with your flat brush. Your dance steps:
    • Start towards the top of the tree.
    • Tap lightly toward the left with your brush edge tilted in the same direction as the branches.
    • Jump the brush to right and tap lightly with brush edige tilted in the same direction as the branches.
    • Jump to the center and tap lightly with the brush edge held horizontally.
    • Repeat until you reach the bottom of the tree. 
  6. Let the painting dry for a few minutes.

Painting the Shadows

Wet your brush with water, but no paint. Blot it so that it is not dripping.

  1. Placing your brush at the bottom of one of the front trees to rewet the paint. 
  2. Pull your brush down and slightly to the right, so that a little of the black follows.
  3. Keep the shadows light.
  4. If it leaves a light line where you started, your brush is too wet. In this case, blot your brush some more and continue. Wait until the shadow dries, and pull paint from just above to cover the white line.
  5. Continue pulling paint from along the entire bottom of the tree. 
  6. Taper the shadow into a tree shape and pull some of the paint to the side to suggest branches, but don’t try to make it a detailed reflection.
  7. Repeat this for most of the trees. Make the shadows very faint, a slight brush of black for distant trees.
  8. If there is a tree behind another with a bit of land between, pull black from the tree behind and into the tree in front.

Let the painting dry.

Painting the Reflected Light

  1. Add a thick mixture of manganese  Blue Mixture along the center of the tree and some of the branches. Dance with your flat brush. Your dance steps:
  2. Start towards the top of the tree.
  3. Tap lightly toward the left with your brush edge tilted in the same direction as the branches.
  4. Jump the brush to right and tap lightly with brush edige tilted in the same direction as the branches.
  5. Jump to the center and tap lightly with the brush edge held horizontally.
  6. Repeat until you reach the bottom of the tree. 

Finishing

Once you’ve finished adding the shadows, let the paint dry for a few hours or even a day or two. Look at it.

  • Are there areas in the trees that pop out at you? Something to dark or too light that catches the eye and doesn’t look right?
  • If something is too light, use a damp brush and pull color from a tree to darken it slightly.
  • If something is too dark, pounce the damp brush over it, let it sit for a second and blot the area with a Kleenex to lighten it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed painting an Aurora Borealis with me.

My Tools

Alternative tools (results may differ from mine):

  • Any large soft brush that will hold lots of water.
  • Any small flat brush.
  • Any decent cold-pressed watercolor paper.
  • Any watercolors that create bright color.
Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Tutorials
16 Comments
  1. Walter F Pierluissi 1 week ago

    Simply wonderful, love the color selection. And the way you showed the painting process is well presented. Thanks for another beautiful video Sandra.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 1 week ago

      Thank you so much, Walt! I love painting this way. It’s so relaxing because you only guide rather than trying to control the color.

  2. JA Wilson 1 week ago

    Fun time!

  3. Brenda Sommerville 1 week ago

    Beautiful

  4. Sally Fox 1 week ago

    Wow! What gorgeous juicy colors! I haven’t tried this one yet, but hope to soon. Thank you so much for sharing your method.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 1 week ago

      Thank you for the lovely comment! I hope you’ll share what your attempt — I love seeing what people do with my tutorials.

  5. Mary Roff 1 week ago

    Wonderful tutorial,Sandra! Amazing colors!!!

  6. Lulu Segel 1 week ago

    How awesome! I will check out your tutorial. This turned out so interesting! 🤩

  7. Varsha Koli 1 week ago

    This is gorgeous! Will check the tutorial.

  8. mlaiuppa 1 week ago

    I have always been fascinated with the idea of painting the Aurora Borealis in watercolor. When the new black watercolor paper came out I thought for sure that might be the answer. Then maybe the pearlescent and iridescent watercolors might be the key. But apparently the secret is my biggest weakness — patience.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 1 week ago

      This would certainly work on black watercolor paper. Really the only patience needed is waiting for the paint to dry. One of the most important things in making watercolor work. Unfortunately, you know what they say about watching paint dry – boring! I usually work on another painting, or leave the painting until the next day and just go off and do something else.

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