We live in the middle of nowhere, which is kind of cool because I like nowhere kinds of places. Plus, we can see the stars! I really love gazing at the night sky and have wanted to try and capture on paper an impression of what I see.
I recently posted about a nighttime illustration I completed, but I was still itching to experiment with other ways to paint a night sky. So with brush in hand, I got to work!
After completing about a dozen different painting experiments ranging from alcohol to bleach to who knows what else— which were all really fun but really messy— I've found a simple way to beautifully depict a night sky.
I hope this tutorial on how to paint a night sky helps with your sketching and journaling efforts. Below are the steps on how to capture your own starry night!
[Links to the products used for this project are affiliates. Thanks!]
- Higgins Eternal ink or other black nonwaterproof ink
- Indigo or Indathrone Blue or other deep blue watercolor paint (optional)
- Hansa yellow or other warm yellow watercolor paint (optional)
- Winsor & Newton white calligraphy ink or other opaque white ink
- Paint brushes
- An old toothbrush
- Spray bottle filled with water
- Quality paper*
*A note on papers: For this project, I used Strathmore 400 Series Mixed Media paper but a good watercolor paper will also work. If you plan to add any pen or calligraphy to your completed sketch, avoid a textured or cold-pressed paper which can cause issues with penmanship.
Step 1: Apply an inky base coat.
Taping your paper down is optional but it helps it to stay put while you are applying ink/paint. I just use standard painter's tape. It works great and costs a fraction of those expensive artists' tapes.
I highly recommend you take everything outside or put down a protective surface first. To do this technique, you are going to work fast while the ink and paints are still wet, and you are going to be splattering these mediums. I tend to make a mess when I do this indoors.
Whenever you are ready, paint a solid wash of black ink across the entire paper. Don't worry if you can see the brushstrokes— this is is actually what you are going for!
I chose to use black ink instead of watercolor for several reasons, but mainly because ink tends to cover on the first stroke much better than watercolor. The photo above shows a comparison of one stroke of Ivory Black watercolor (top) versus one stroke of Higgins Eternal ink (bottom).
If all you have is a black watercolor, feel free to use it. Unless it is highly staining, it should work for this technique. I haven't tried it, but a thinned acrylic may also also work, so use what you've got!
Step 2: Add a touch of blue.
Immediately after applying the black ink base coat, while the ink is still very wet, wash in a swipe or two of the dark blue watercolor.
I like to do this because it gives the sky more depth than just the black, but this step is totally optional! At the end of the post, I will show you a night sky I did just using black ink, which is great also.
Step 3: Create stars.
Still working quickly while everything is very wet, use the water-filled spray bottle to lightly mist the painting. The water hitting the wet pigment will create a neat effect of cauliflower-like stars.
I like to spray at a slight angle so the effect is directional, but this is so much fun to play around with so feel free to get creative. You can also use the spray to create a Milky Way space across the page or other galactic effects. Just don't go overboard because it's easy to spray all of the pigment off the paper!
Step 4: Add a splash of warmth.
Now you can breathe for a moment and allow the painting to partially dry. When the painting is still about 50-percent wet, dip the toothbrush in a slightly diluted amount of yellow watercolor paint. Using your fingertip, flick the bristles of the watercolor-loaded toothbrush to create a light splattering of yellow dots across the page.
Where the pigment is still wet, the paint will bleed and "cauliflower" creating a lovely starburst effect. Where the painting is dry, the paint will look more like distant, tiny stars.
This is an optional step so if you don't have yellow watercolor paint, feel free to skip it, but I love to add a bit of warmth to the galaxy.
We often think of stars as white, but if you look at the night sky long enough, you can see a range of colors! Astronomers classify stars according to luminosity, brightness, temperature, and color. If you practice the art of star gazing, yellows along with reds and blues will begin to become apparent to you. Look for this effect next time you have a clear view of the night sky!
Step 5: Add a final star layer.
When the painting is nearly dry but not all the way, lightly dip the (cleaned) toothbrush into the white calligraphy ink. Just like you did with the yellow watercolor paint, flick the bristles of the toothbrush to create a light splattering of white dots across the page.
Again, just like the yellow watercolor paint, the ink will leave solid flecks where the paper is dry and create lovely "starburst" effects where the painting is still wet.
Now set your painting aside and allow it to dry completely.
Step 6: Enjoy your masterpiece!
This was such a fun process for me, so I hope you will enjoy it also! The great thing about this technique is that every night sky painting that you create will be different, kind of like the ever changing skyline above us.
Again, if you don't have all the materials in the list, don't worry about it. Above, you can see two different night skies that I created. The one on the right is the one in the tutorial. The one on the left was completed without watercolor.
The monochromatic look may not make a difference to you, especially if you intend to use the night sky painting as a backdrop like in the photo below.
If you use this technique, I'd love to see your night sky. You can email me at the link below, or if you post on social media, be sure to tag me. Enjoy!