I recently received a commission to paint the Bethlehem star in a night sky depicting the time of Christ’s birth along with the backdrop of the city of Bethlehem. The commission was very different from my usual line of work and was not certain of taking it at first. However, I ended up deciding in favor of the challenge. I took images of the painting at each step of the way. So, decided to make a tutorial out of it and share it with you here! If you are wondering how to make a starry night painting or a ‘nativity’ painting this post is for you.
The painting is done mostly from imagination as of course there are no extant visual sources from the time of Christ’s birth as cameras unfortunately (or fortunately) did not exist in that time! If you are entertaining the thought of making a Christmas painting yourself this year or just a starry night painting, here is a tutorial to help you get started.
First Steps in the Christmas Painting
When starting your painting, first put a light wash to over the surface of your canvas – this will be your underpainting. This will break the bright white color of the gessoed canvas, making it easier to see your piece tonally.
Next, you will want to make a very general line sketch of your painting. As seen in the example. Try to sketch out the very basic architecture of your piece. Mark where you want your horizon line and the other major points of your piece.
Start with the sky
In general, it is a good practice to start with the sky when dealing with a landscape painting. Doing so helps to determine what the lighting on the land will look like. For example, if the sky is cloudy, then the land will have a ‘cloudy’ look as well.
In the example to the left, the sky is a nighttime sky as the painting will be highlighting the ‘Bethlehem star’.
Start out making the top darker blue and (very) gradually lighter as you move towards the horizon. The top of the sky will be darker than the horizon of the sky as the top part o the sky is closer to you than the horizon. The area where the land meets the sky is also ‘farther away’ and you want to paint it lighter in color so that it will recede into the distance.
Just as the upper portion of the sky is closer to you than the rest of the sky, the lower part of the ‘land’ – the foreground – is also closest to you in respect to the rest of the land area.
Make the foreground darker so as to give a feeling of the foreground feeling closer to you – gradually make the landscape lighter as you move towards the horizon.
Some corrections in the sky
I realized that my sky was not dark enough to make the painting really feel like it was at night time. So, I took the liberty to darken the sky.
I used a liberal amount of ultramarine blue and cadmium orange do get a deep dark color in the upper area of the sky. I would sometimes add small amounts of pthalo green and alizarin crimson to get an even richer color. As you can see, I start to add some white where I plan to put the ‘Bethlehem Star’.
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Complete the sky
The sky is perhaps the most difficult part of this painting! Creating a smooth transition from the upper part of the painting to the lighter horizon is no small feat. Try to very gradually mix lighter blue as you move down.
In regards to the star, I smudged the paint around the edge of the star so as to create a soft transition between the star and sky. This makes it feel like it is ‘sitting’ in the sky instead o it looking like a ‘cutout’ star. You can use your finger to rub the paint in to create those soft edges.
Work the Land and Sky
In the next step, I brought some stars into the sky. I made some stars that were bright white, while others that were more muted. This gives more dimension to the sky – making some stars feel up close and others feel further away. For the muted stars I simply mixed them with a muted blue (which is blue mixed with orange). Also, try to vary the sizes of your stars!
In regards to the land, work on creating smoother transitions between the different areas of the landscape. Try to give dimension to the hills by lighting up similar area of the hills and making the other areas of the hills appear in shadow.
In addition, make the foreground warmer in temperature and cooler as the landscape recedes back towards the horizon.
The Final step of the Bethlehem Christmas Painting
Here is the Bethlehem Christmas Painting in its complete form. You can see that much changed in terms of the landscape. Some bushes were added to help give further dimension and interest to the landscape. As well, the city of Bethlehem sits in the background – the destination of the three wise men who can be seen in the lower left corner.
The star is further developed to give it a softness, making it extend a little beyond its central point.