Nebula Painting Tutorial for Beginner Watercolor Artists


Learn how to paint a nebula with this watercolor nebula painting tutorial! It's a fun and straight-forward painting project for all ages and abilities. A nebula is a cloud of stardust where stars are born!

(My YouTube Nebula Painting Tutorial)

What does a nebula in space look like?

A nebula is a big cloud of dust and gas (NASA 2021). Then, when they collapse, they create new stars (why nebulae are aka a star nursery!).

What materials do I need to paint a nebula?

For this painting tutorial, you will need the following materials below. I chose materials based on their quality and affordability. Also, many artists that I admire using these materials and wanted to achieve similar loose vibrant paintings. Above all, just jump in and paint using what you already have!

Materials for this project:


  • watercolor paper (Arches 140-lb Cold Press Paper)
  • Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints (what I use):
    • Lunar Blue (my absolute favorite watercolor paint for a dark starry sky!)
    • Quinacridone Purple (vibrant purple paint)
    • Cobalt Blue (My go-to blue paint in watercolor)
    • Azo Yellow (vibrant yellow tube)
    • Alizarin Crimson (red)
  • Are there Reference Photos of Nebulae?

    Reference photos are often a great resource for beginner artists! So long as you remember to treat them as a guide rather than a template for your end result! For my outer space paintings, I usually go to NASA's photo gallery and explore all the beautiful photos captured by telescopes and missions to get inspired before painting. This is because I love seeing the endless possibilities in the universe is exciting!

    With this in mind, I scroll through NASA photos until I find something that has colors I like or a beautiful shape. You may share photos NASA posts online, however they ask that you credit them. Let's start with a few ideas and inspirational nebula photos.

    NASA Nebulae inspiring photos for reference

    (Nebula photos captured by NASA for inspiration. The top image was most inspiring for this nebula painting tutorial)

    Nebula Painting Tutorial Steps

    Let's jump into painting your nebula. Firstly, tape down your watercolor paper using painters', washii or masking tape to a flat surface. This keeps the paper from buckling when we soak it with water! After that, grab a glass of water and some paper towel. Then, set out your watercolor palette or squeeze out some color as you need it on your paint pan. Have a bright work space to paint so you can mix colors easier! Now, let's get the brush on the paper.

    Step 1 of this nebula painting tutorial: Paint light to dark

    Start by wetting the centre of your paper and applying the tiniest bit of yellow paint to the edges of your puddle. Then, add more pigment around the edges and introduce alizarin crimson to your mixture. This will create an orange gradient.

    light nebula watercolor paint wash

    watercolor nebula painting step 2

    nebula first snapshot of watercolor wash

    Then, add some clear water to the edges of your wet paper. While it is wet, some cobalt blue to the outskirts of your damp page. Also introduce a dark blue (I used lunar blue) as you approach your tape. This will draw the eye to the center of your galaxy, rather than the edges.

    introducing purple watercolor paint to my watercolor painting of a nebula

    introducing more purple watercolor paint to my watercolor painting of a nebula

    introducing blue watercolor paint to my watercolor painting of a nebula


    As the paint dries, introduce some bright purple (I used quinacridone purple). For example, paint with strong pigment and dab it into regions for added interest. Notice how I introduce quinacridone purple early on with my yellow. I just love this color!

    As you paint, remember to stop before your colors get muddy. In our first layer, it is important to keep colors vibrant and separated so we can paint over it next.

    Step 2: Apply your next nebula painting layer

    For your next nebula painting layer, use more pigment and less water for every stroke. For instance, I use cobalt blue with lots of pigment. 

    Watercolor paint being applied to the paper close-up with a paint brush.

    (Apply Cobalt Blue to the outskirts of your lighter nebula region)

    Step 3: Paint more depth in the nebula centre

    I added a light cobalt blue to the center of my nebula and blended it out with water.

    Applying blue layers to the center of your nebula galaxy. Blend with water outward.

    (Applying blue layers to the center of your nebula galaxy. Blend with water outward)

    step 4: add layers to your nebula painting with warm colors

    Next, I layered up will warmer colors, including red and purple. For example, add red to the edge of the orange band. Also, add purple to the red band. This creates a beautiful gradient effect.

    nebula painting  closeup with watercolor

    closeup image of watercolor paint being applied to a nebula painting

    step 5: add more layers using cooler paint colors

    Then, I used more lunar blue on the outer corners of my painting to really darken the edges and draw the eye to the center of the painting.

    allowing the watercolor nebula painting some time to dry

    After painting those warm and cool paint layers, allow lots of time for your paint to dry. I waited 1 hour before going to the next step, since this is a small paper!

    How to paint stars with acrylic paint and a toothbrush

    Lastly, for step 6, you paint the stars using a toothbrush and any acrylic paint! This is my absolute favorite part of painting any starry scenes. There are several ways to paint star clusters. For example, put the toothbrush close up to the painting for many bright stars. In contrast, to get really tiny stars, move your toothbrush further away from your paper. Use your thumb as shown in the photo to splatter your acrylic-water mixture. You may need to dilute the paint to get it to splatter easily.

    toothbrush paint on nebula painting.

    Step 7: Remove your tape after allowing time to dry

    final nebula painting from the step by step tutorial

    (The final nebula painting in watercolor)

    If you enjoyed this space art tutorial and want more, check out more of my articles below! I hope you will try painting and share your results.

    nebula fact and photo references:


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