Thursday, 5 November 2009

Painting the sky

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – November 2009.

If you are a landscape painter, you already know that the sky plays a major role in your overall painting. In order to avoid a bland division of space, I would advocate not placing the horizon line right in the middle of your painting. This means that, if you choose a low horizon, the sky could take more than two third of the painted surface and, if you go for a high horizon, around one third of the surface. The last thing you want is a boring sky.

Weymouth Bay - Oil painting by John Constable - National Gallery (Source: Wikimedia)

The sky is more than a backdrop on a theatre’s stage because it conditions the quality of the light and therefore the brightness and tone of all colours. A blue sky reflects on all objects in the landscape. In the same way, a stormy sky will shed a grey light on the land and bring out very specific colours. If you work from photographs, you cannot just take a scene captured on a sunny day, change the colour of the sky to grey and hope it works as a rainy day scene. The whole palette is affected by the quality of the light and this artificial juxtaposition would just feel wrong.

There is nothing like a blue sky. What I mean by this is that you will find many types of blue colours in the sky, many nuances and variations; and this is what makes the sky so interesting to paint. An excellent way to analyze and compare the colour of the sky in different areas is to take a sheet of white A4 paper in portrait format and cut out two small square windows (one square inch will do) ; one two inches from the upper edge and another one two inches from the lower edge. Then, hold the piece of paper against the sky you are observing and compare the two “samples” of sky in the square windows. Because you isolate these two areas, you can see the difference in colour.

Imagine that the sky is like a high ceiling that goes down as it recedes and merges with the horizon. The colour of the sky fades and its intensity lessen as it goes towards the horizon.

Let’s now talk about clouds. They are the most interesting features as they bring diversity, volume and movement to the sky. They also have an abstract quality that fires the imagination. Do you remember looking at clouds as a child and finding all sorts of figures, animal and objects in these morphing clouds?

Clouds come in various forms and shapes. Be aware that different types of clouds are found at different altitudes: high level clouds include Cirrus; medium-level clouds include Altostratus and Altocumulus. Stratocumulus, Stratus, Nimbostratus; and Cumulus are all low-level clouds. Finally, a Cumulonimbus is a cloud that develops vertically. As painters, we are interested in different texture and clouds can be transparent like Cirrus or opaque and creamy like Cumulus.

Here are some pointers when you paint clouds:

  • Clouds are not flat but three dimensional objects subject to the rules of perspective. Think of them as rounded objects lit by the sun.

  • As they recede towards the horizon, clouds appear smaller.

  • Introduce variety in the shape of your clouds, while maintaining the characteristics of the family they belong to.

  • Take note of the position of the sun and make sure your light and shadows are consistent in all your clouds.

  • Clouds are not white. They also reflect the colour of the sky. Reserve the white for highlights.

  • Clouds have shadows in them. The difference is sometime subtle but you will always have some type of shadow areas with slightly darker tones. I like to use a mix of ultramarine with a hint of Yellow Ochre and Carmine Alizarin to create shadows in clouds.

  • By default, you should treat the edges of clouds as soft edges. Even if you see a well defined outline of a Cumulus, chances are that some blending happens on the edge due to the misty nature of clouds. Also observe how the tone at the base of clouds is very close to the tone of the sky touching such a base, so that an optical blending happens between the two.
The best way to capture the variety of the sky and clouds is to go out and do some plein-air painting. During windy days, clouds move fast and if you are inexperienced, I would recommend that you take a couple of reference photographs for your peace of mind. When you paint from nature, quickly draw the general shape of the clouds, mark their position and outline their shadows. You can make some adjustments and refine them after you have painted the colour of the sky.

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Packaging USA said...

This painting was commissioned by a client who, I discovered in conversation, admired the work of JMW Turner as much as I do.

tata said...
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