Each watercolour sky you paint is a product of several factors. These include the water content, the angle of your board, your degree of skill and, although perhaps I shouldn't say this, an element of luck. All of these combine to ensure that it's totally impossible to copy a sky. Whether it's a success or a failure, each one is unique. If you're working in oil or pastel, it's not so much of a lottery; you can be far more structured and systematic in your approach. I can't help feeling, though, that there isn't quite the excitement there is in watercolour, but perhaps I'm biased.
The purpose of this chapter, then, is not to provide you with paintings to copy, but to start you off with ideas and inspiration. For instance, the sky on the right could look good over a Scottish grouse moor.
I hope too that the paintings on these pages will encourage you to become more adventurous and get away from 'safe' skies, which can often be-flat and boring.
This wild sky was done on the Pacific coast of Oregon. The reflection of the sky in the wet sand gives an instant unity to the scene, and also adds to the feeling of foreboding that is due to the approaching storm. After an initial pale wash of raw sienna, I dropped in some Prussian blue to the top right. Quickly, while the initial wash was still damp, I dropped in a very rich mixture of Payne's grey and alizarin. Some of this was immediately dabbed out with tissue to create the lighter clouds in front, near the horizon. For the sea, 1 left plenty of white paper to convey the rollers. The small figure provides a focal point.
The simple gradated sky was painted using my usual very pale sienna wash, followed by a strong wash of ultramarine over the top. As I moved my brush backwards and forwards towards the horizon, I gradually took weight off the brush until it was no longer touching the paper. I then tipped the paper up to allow it to gradate. Ultramarine is one of the colours which granulates, as you see here. Personally, I like the effect. The main bush helps to link the sky to the landscape below, adding a sense of unity to the scene.
I was attracted to this peaceful evening scene by the complexity of the colourful sky in a darkening landscape. The scene required a good deal of thought and a methodical approach, as the sky depends very much on water content. It needed to be done in two stages, the first being very quickly followed by the second. After the first pale raw sienna wash, I concentrated on the variation in colour. Ultramarine at the top, followed by alizarin, lemon yellow, with more alizarin crimson added to the yellow at the horizon.
While all this was still fairly damp, 1 applied a stronger mixture of alizarin and Payne's grey to form the clouds. This had to be done quickly and with decision, and then left alone. I knew that if I went back and poked about at it, I would wreck it, so there's a lot of self-control in this picture too! The foreground colours echo those of the sky, providing unity and harmony.
There's plenty of movement in this sky, which contrasts well with the feeling of stillness in the foreground fisherman. There is contrast too, between the cool blue and the warmer cloud colour. The sky was painted very quickly, wet into wet, to maintain the freshness. Even some of the distant trees were dropped in with strong colour before the sky was dry. Notice how I've left white paper in the distant water and echoed the sky colour in the water and foreground beach. This repetition of colour is an important factor in achieving unity in a painting.
Iii this type of subtle evening sky, you must ignore the main clouds until you've got the gradated sky with its gently changing colour in place. Only then do you take your strong, rich mixture and put it on boldly, while the gradated wash is still damp, and then wait for it to blend. The same colours are used in the mud of the estuary, but applied with a drier brush for more solidity and texture.
This complex and colourful evening sky was great fun to do. I first painted in a gradated sky, adding a mixture of lemon yellow and alizarin in the bottom right. While it was all still wet, 1 put in the darker clouds, quickly painting right across the sky again, using a whole arm movement (I always feel 1 have to stand up to do this properly). I used tissue paper to break up the clouds. You'll realize that I had to work fast to complete the whole sky before the washes dried. I then had a breathing space before completing the foreground. I enjoyed this painting and, looking back on it now, feel that I captured the atmosphere of the scene.
You may have noticed that I enjoy snow scenes and this one provided quite a challenge, with its threatening clouds promising yet more snow. Designwise, the eye is taken into the picture via the cart tracks to the only man-made object, the gate. The strong silhouetted trees provide a balance with the dark clouds. Notice too how these trees are placed against the lightest part of the sky to give contrast and impact. I dropped cobalt blue into the dampened sky area, and below this a wash of lemon yellow. Then, taking my courage in both hands, I threw in a strong wash of Payne's grey and alizarin. Always be aware that the rich wash will fade back, so allow for this in the strength of your mixture.
This was painted on the coast of Maine, where I've taught annually for the last ten years. This cumulonimbus sky was very satisfying to paint. Timing and water content were both of the essence. To the first raw sienna wash, I added lemon yellow near the horizon. To warm up the cloud colour, I added burnt umber to my alizarin and Payne's grey mix. I then used the hake to put on this wash in varying strengths, using the angle of the board to create movement and gradation. You'll notice again the colour reflected in the water and the use of the contrasting dry brush technique, as opposed to the water and the clouds.
This painting depicts a calm, misty morning in Fort William in Scotland. I've tried to convey the atmosphere of the scene by using restricted but harmonious colours. I put in the distant hills before the sky was <|uite dry, which has given a soft effect, and this contrasts well with the sharp line of the jetty. Most of the painting was done using raw sienna, alizarin and ultramarine, which, used in various strengths, produced the pinky mauves throughout the painting. In a scene such as this, with most of the action taking place in one small area, you can afford to allow the rest of the picture to be calm and uncluttered, with only the tiny boat and its wake to disturb the optical silence.
I now teach in Norway, aiul this is a typical Norwegian fjord scene, painted in cool evening light. The foreground foliage forms a partial frame for the distant scene and the calligraphy contrasts well with the softness of the cloud forms. Notice how the sky colour is echoed in the foreground snow. The gentle reflections in the water helped to produce this satisfying and harmonious scene. Again, it's necessary to put in all the subtle variations in the sky before the main cloud formations go in over the top in stronger colour.
Here we have a cumulus sky on a breezy day in Devon. I've tried to keep the whole picture warm and harmonious by repeating the sky colour in the sea and hillsides. The clouds are, of course, created by using the blue as a negative shape, remembering that the clouds should get smaller as they reach the horizon, as an aid to perspective. Once the cloud shapes are created, the shadows within them should be put in before the initial all-over wash has dried. This type of sky causes ground shadows, which create interest on both land and sea. Notice too the use of the white paper.
This dramatic evening composition was one which I just had to try. I'm horribly aware how easy it is to end up with a scene which is gaudy and 'bitty'. I've tried to avoid this by restricting the number of colours and simplifying the cloud shapes. Unusually for me, I used masking fluid to help create the sinking sun and its reflection. Initially ignoring the clouds, I put in a gradated sky on a damp wash, using alizarin crimson, lemon yellow and cadmium orange. Only when this was completed did I put in the clouds with a strong wash of alizarin and Payne's grey. The difficulty here is to time this wash so that you get a soft edge without losing the overall shape of the cloud. Having removed the masking fluid, I used a careful wash of lemon yellow.
What attracted me to this sky was the challenge of having to change my thinking about sky colour. The sky seemed to be made up of pinks and mauves, and the hillside also had taken on quite a different hue. It was important here to echo the sky colour in the foreground. In this case, I allowed the initial weak wash of raw sienna to dry. I then made the mauve from a little blue mixed with light red, which I put on leaving a clear edge to form the cumulus cloud. This I continued down to the horizon. I then put in the two darker clouds in thicker paint while the wash was still wet, allowing the soft shapes to form. The clear pink of the cumulus cloud involved letting the whole sky dry, then rewetting with clear water before putting in the weak alizarin. The hillside went in next, partly wet into wet, partly hard-edged, this time using Antwerp blue. The foreground plan was put in with long strokes of the brush, being careful to introduce some of the pinks from the sky.
In contrast to the last page, this scene is almost monochromatic. To make this type of sky work, it has to be done boldly, with as few strokes as possible, allowing the paint to 'do its own thing'. On a day like this, the colour scheme is necessarily limited, although I've added some reds in the foreground to create interest and variety. The two vertical trees here are important as a contrasting element in a mainly horizontal composition and they also help to form the whole picture into a unit by linking the sky and land. When tackling this type of sky, it is a good idea to have your board at a fairly steep angle, allowing the paint to move.
In this bright and breezy scene the cumulonimbus clouds race across the sky. I've varied the colours in the beach from cool to warm. I feel this is very important, because in a large area of foreground it's easy to fall into the trap of monotony. You'll notice that the sea consists largely of the white paper. Thinking back to our chapter on design, you'll see that the two boys, the main object of interest, are placed at a different distance from each edge of the painting.
Here's a really wet cumulonimbus cloudscape. The secret of giving the impression of approaching rain is to put a strong, very rich cloud colour on to a fairly damp all-over wash. Naturally, the wetter the original wash, the faster it moves. Even in this type of sky, I like to make one cloud bigger and stronger than the rest, providing the element of dominance. You'll notice that the clouds on the horizon are tiny by comparison. The lost and found element of the horizon hills adds to the feeling of approaching rain, and was achieved by painting the hills into the sky before the latter was dry. I waited longer before I painted the harder edges on each end of the horizon. I tried to use contrasting techniques for the foreground rocks and water, leaving the white paper to do as much of the work as possible.
This type of sky is often known in the trade as a chaotic sky, which seems to me to be an excellent description. It's impossible to paint this sort of sky carefully. Instead, you just have to let yourself go, painting with abandon and with varying amounts of richness in your paint. One feature which attracted me to this scene was the way the cloud formations allowed the light to strike the land briefly but strongly. You can see this in the patch of light field on the right. It reminded me of the light Rowland Hilder used to love to get into his paintings and which he used to such great effect. I deliberately added the small dark bush to heighten the contrast. Notice how the row of dark trees 011 the left has been placed against the lightest part of the sky, and the way that the track leads the eye into the picture towards the figure. The trees also help to balance the dark cloud formation. You'll see that in some parts of the sky, the original weak raw sienna wash has been allowed to remain untouched. I had to work quickly, introducing thicker and thicker washes into the right-hand side of the sky, to build up the layers of cloud. The whole sky had to be completed in minutes, before the original wash had dried, while the landscape below could be produced in a less frantic fashion.
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