For many years my painting career was centred around watercolour. I've always loved its challenge, as one attempts to produce fresh, free paintings, while avoiding the constant temptation to overwork, which always results in muddiness. More recently, though, I've been attracted to working in other media, and I feel that a book devoted entirely to skies deserves at least one chapter showing the use of these different materials and techniques. While accepting that these other media present a completely different set of challenges, by their very nature oil and pastel are at least more forgiving than watercolour. One is not generally subjected to the instant failure which lies in wait for the watercolourist. I have enjoyed being able to employ a more measured, calmer approach, and not having to worry about negative shapes to preserve the lights in the skies. Turning first to pastels and their use in sky painting, of course you can't mix up the colours on a palette as you can with watercolour or oils, but instead have to rely on the subtlety of each individual pastel. You can't just go out and buy a box of pastels; you have to choose each colour very carefully. This is particularly so when you're concentrating on skies. The colours in the boxes that are already made up simply aren't subtle enough.
This oil painting w as done very close to home at Lydney Docks on the Severn estuary, looking towards the Severn Bridge. This once-thriving port is now virtually deserted, but offers great opportunities to paint undisturbed, with its huge vistas of sky and water. I was particularly attracted by the reflections of the sky in the water and the light on the mud flats, which were anything but a dull, flat brown and presented quite a challenge.
This pastel depicts two types of cloud - high-flying cirrus and a strong, billowing cumulus below. Notice how the cloud shape is repeated in the foreground tree, giving balance and harmony to the scene, while the counterchanged profile of the village adds interest and gives a focal point.
What attracted me here was the opportunity to use some strong pastel colours to depict the evening sky. The variety of clouds was good too. There was a mackerel effect above, with stronger cumulonimbus below, beautifully lit by the setting sun and enhanced by the strong, dark, crisp profile of the trees on the horizon.
It's a wonderful excuse, though, to spend time browsing through the art supplies shops, choosing delicate mauves, pinks and creams. Another enjoyable aspect is that you need so little equipment, which makes it perfect for working in the field. Although it is possible to use watercolour paper, there is a wide range of pastel paper available; Canson and Ingres are two of the most famous names here. One can also use very fine sandpaper.
I feel that one of the dangers in pastel is the temptation to attempt continually to soften the pastel with your finger. While this is, of course, necessary in some parts of a painting, it can never be a substitute for good strong individual strokes, which give vibrancy and life to a painting.
With respect to oils, I've enjoyed being able to build stroke on stroke — impossible in watercolour. There are so many different techniques one can employ that there is tremendous scope for individuality. I still enjoy using large brushes, which
In this rapid pastel sketch, I was attempting to capture the delicate mauve and orange tints in the February sky, contrasted as they were with the richer colours of the landscape.
This chaotic sky seemed to have a little of almost every cloud type in it. I've tried to get plenty of warm and cool colours into the cloud shapes, as well as capturing the movement as they race across the sky.
What I attempted in this oil painting was to get varying amounts of warm and cool colours into the clouds. I feel this makes for a more interesting effect than simply painting white clouds in a blue sky. The use of too much pure white in an oil painting tends to make it look chalky and rather amateurish. Keep the white for highlighting - in buildings or boats, for example.
In the 'streets' of cumulus clouds in this fresh estuary scene in pastel, I've again introduced creams and pinks into the cloud colour. This brings interest and warmth to the sky, and is repeated in the water. The moored dinghy provides a useful centre of interest.
There is a strong feeling of movement in this pastel of an evening cirrus sky. An important design feature is the way in which the cloud formation points to the group of trees on the right. The sky colour reflected in the lake below provides an element of unity.
help to provide freedom. Even an oil painting will lose its vigour if one is too 'careful' with it.
Something to avoid is the over-use of pure white. Even white billowing clouds will need a touch of another colour to warm them. Regarding materials, traditional canvases seem to be less and less used, even among our top professionals, and there are many alternative supports now available. One can buy ready-prepared oil painting boards in all shapes and sizes. You could, however, prepare your own by painting the smooth side of hardboard just with size and then with gesso. This will give a good tooth to your board and is cheaper yet still stable. Rather like with water-colour painting, a restricted palette is preferable. Most of the oil painters I admire use only about ten colours.
Design in Skies
You may be a little surprised at this chapter heading, but as an artist your job is not just to record but to make your sky part of a whole and unified painting. To achieve this, we have to obey the rules of design. I'd be shirking my responsibility if all I did was to show you the technique of applying paint, without outlining the basic principles of design. Artists may not necessarily be born with the ability to design, but it is something which everyone can learn. There are very definite rules which, once learned and applied, will take your painting into another sphere. Your ignorance of these rules will always show in a very negative way, while your knowledge will enhance your work no matter what the subject is.
There are eight principles which we need to think about and act on in all our pictures. These are
One way of ensuring unity in a picture is to echo the colours, and a snow scene like this gives a good opportunity. Notice how the sky colour is repeated on the snow below. There is balance here too, the dominant cloud on the right being balanced by the dark clump of trees on the opposite side. There is variety in the foreground, the soft wet into wet snow giving interest when used against the dry brush technique, and the calligraphy of the grasses. Contrast is provided throughout the picture, soft against hard, dark against light, but is probably most noticeable in the trees on the skyline.
In this: simple landscape many of the design principles are illustrated. The main cloud is echoed by the shape of the tree, and these two elements balance each other as well. The tree also acts as a link between land and sky. You'll notice at once how one cloud dominates the whole sky, while its darker edge contrasts well against the lighter cloud behind.
All these can and should be applied to sky painting. They're not complicated but they are vitally important, so let's look at them one at a time.
Unity. Each painting must be a complete unit, rather than a collection of disparate objects. One way of achieving this is to echo shapes or colours in a different area of your painting. For example, a cloud shape could be echoed by a tree, which would also act as a link between land and sky. These echoes shouldn't be the same size, of course; always make one larger than the other, and ideally position them obliquely. Colourwise, always try to repeat some of your sky colour in your landscape, or vice versa. A good example would be to have some of the sky colour in the water below.
Contrast. This will create interest and excitement, and is a principle that you will need in each and every one of your paintings. You can have contrast in tone: for example, a dark tree against a light part of the sky, or a sunlit steeple against a dark thundercloud. You can use horizontal against vertical: for example, a ship's mast against a mainly Hat horizon. Or hard against soft: for example, the silhouette of a town against billowing clouds.
Dominance. A good example of this would be to make one cloud in the sky larger and stronger than all the others. Nothing looks worse than a row of uniform clouds! Colour dominance can be achieved by a larger area of one colour, or a small area of a more intense colour against a more neutral one. For example, make your blue patch of sky either larger or smaller than your cloudy area, not the same size.
There are many elements of design in this picture. You can see the unity provided by the reflection of the sky colour in the water. There's lots of contrast, with the hard, dark edge of the mountain against the sky, and the land against water. While there's plenty of richness in the colours, they are harmonious throughout the picture.
Variation and Alternation. These are ways of repeating yourself in your painting, but without monotony. For example, you could paint several cumulus clouds, varying them in shape and size — basically, large at the top and small at the bottom. Vary the spaces between the clouds (alternation), which will also help.
Balance. Perhaps the easiest example of this would be to have a dark tree balanced by a dark cloud, but always obliquely, and always a different size. You'll see this point illustrated time and time again throughout the book.
Harmony. When we talk of the harmonious elements in a painting, we mean those that are similar to each other or have affinity, like the notes in a musical chord. For example, a circle with an oval, or the colour orange with red, or a boulder in the foreground could be a similar shape to a cloud in your sky.
Gradation. Wherever you have a large area in mainly one colour, you must use gradation to avoid boredom. So, in a cloudless sky, you must grade your blue from deep blue at the top to cream at the bottom. What you're aiming for is a gradual change from cool to warm colour, dark to light, or light to dark. You can apply this, as I've said, to a clear blue sky or to one that is grey and overcast.
Not all your paintings need to contain all the principles, but try to incorporate as many as you can. Once you've absorbed these eight principles into your way of thinking about your painting, they will soon become second nature. Perhaps at first it would be an idea to keep a check list of the principles close at hand. When you think about it, they are all common sense anyway.
There are, of course, other aspects of composition which we should look at. Perhaps one of the worst faux pas would be to put your horizon smack in the middle of your painting. Doing this
In this misty river scene, with its gradated sky, boredom is avoided by varying the colours across the background. The colours also provide harmony. While the picture is predominantly horizontal, the main tree provides a strong vertical element, giving contrast and linking the foreground to the rest of the painting. The strongest contrast can be seen in the sharp treatment of the moored boats against the soft trees behind them. You'll notice how I've echoed the colours of the foreground tree in the patch of colour in the background hills. I felt a rare contentment while I was working on the painting, which I hope is evident in the finished interpretation of this gentle scene.
will instantly chop your painting in half, so destroying all your attempts at unification. In our paragraph on dominance, we've mentioned that one cloud must dominate but never be placed in the centre; it should always be to one side. This, of course, applies to other objects in your paintings, such as trees. Another thing to remember is, never have two objects of equal size on opposite sides of the painting. This leads us on to the importance of having a good focal point, a spot in your picture to which the eye will be inevitably drawn. It does not have to be the largest thing; it might be the area of greatest contrast or the brightest colour. One thing to remember here is that either a figure, human or animal, or a man-made object, be it a boat, house or gate, will always attract attention, no matter how tiny it is in the picture. If you had a massive sky with just a tiny church spire on the horizon, this would be the point to which the eye was immediately drawn. This is a good principle to remember in any sky
The eye is taken into the picture via the road turning towards the distant church tower. I did the painting, which is basically of a field of stubble, at the side of a road in Norfolk. I've deliberately echoed some of the sky colour in the stubble and the road to give both variety and unity. It's interesting to note that the eye is always drawn to a man-made object in a picture, no matter how small it is. There is a good variety of warm and cool greens here, and the calligraphy of the foreground grasses provides a vertical element in a mainly horizontal composition.
painting, even if the sky takes up nine-tenths of the whole painting area.
Never forget that the ob ject of design is to keep the viewer's interest within the painting, so always avoid an empty sky. Not only is it boring but it lacks movement, fails to create any sense of space and doesn't even keep the eye within the picture - all good reasons for applying the principle of gradation.
Perhaps I ought also to mention perspective, of which there are two kinds. First, there is linear perspective, which basically means that things get smaller as they are further away, which applies as much to clouds as to anything else - something many students tend to forget. Cumulus clouds on the horizon are only a fraction of the size of those above your head - almost the scale of a postage stamp to a front door! Look at the sky and you'll see what I mean. Then there is aerial perspective: how things appear paler, cooler and flatter the
Design plays an important part in this rather woody picture. The eye is taken into the scene by the light area of sky, which leads to the main object of interest, the tiny boat. Note how the right-hand bank also points to this area - another useful design ploy!
further away they are. This again must be applied to skies. Distant hills against a horizon may be almost pale blue, as opposed to the warm, rich colour of foreground objects.
Finally, never forget that your role as an artist is to entertain, so the worst thing you can do is to bore your viewers. You must provide them with excitement and stimulation, to the very best of your ability - but do remember to enjoy yourself while you're doing it!
Using Your Camera
I know that a lot of artists condemn the use of photography in connection with their painting, but photographs can be a good source of reference for different cloud types. After all, weather conditions change so fast that it's not always possible to paint them outdoors, whereas they can be captured in seconds with the use of a camera. Don't think for a moment that I'm recommending this as an easy option. The more experience you get painting outside on site, the more skilful you will become in using all reference sources, including photographs. You must, of course, avoid using photography as a crutch, thinking that it can spare you taking the trouble to observe and draw carefully. In other words, use the camera as a servant, never letting it become a master. I usually keep a camera in my car and use it to capture any exciting cloud formations that I see - although annoyingly, of course, the best of these appear when I've left the camera at home! In talking about photography, we need to divide the
Here Doug Fontaine has caught the setting sun as it disappears below the horizon, lighting up the cirrostratus from below as it goes. The small cumulus clouds here are shadowed at the top, rather than the bottom, for the same reason. Photography is the perfect art form for capturing fleeting moments such as these. The resulting photographs can then be put to good use in the studio at a later date.
This is an example of how your camera can be used in association with your sketchbook. I first painted this windmill as a demonstration by the side of the road in Norfolk. I Iowever, the sky was both overcast and uninteresting and the resulting watercolour sketch was disappointing. Later, using this photograph, I did a tonal sketch combining the first painting with the photograph. I felt this worked well, so went on to produce the painting opposite, which has far more vitality and sparkle.
subject into colour and black and white. While colour photography seems to have taken over in popularity, there is still a place for black and white, particularly in photographing skies, where the contrast provided can be very exciting. Also, back in the studio black and white will give you more opportunity for using your imagination when you're painting.
Taking black and white films first, these are particularly sensitive to blue light. This means that they cannot differentiate between the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds. As the best way to get interesting sky photographs is to isolate the clouds from the background of the sky, the only answer is to use filters. A yellow filter will absorb its complementary colour, blue, so that very little reaches the film. This means that the blue of the sky will print somewhat darker, showing up the white clouds. Orange will darken the sky even more and a red filter will make a sky really dramatic, by absorbing nearly all the colour coming from the sky and so making it print black. Hear in mind, however, that the use of an orange or red filter will alter the recording of the foreground. For example, a red filter will make green grass almost black. Without using these filters, though, you may be disappointed, as the subtle cloud tones you saw will not register on film.
Turning to colour photography, personally I don't like to work from transparencies. Although they're better quality, the artificial light of a viewer makes them too bright. However, when preparing a book, publishers need transparencies rather than colour prints.
With colour transparency film, skies can be improved by under-exposure. Usually this can be achieved by up-rating the ISO reading on your camera. For example, Kodachrome 64 could be set at 80; but don't forget to put it back to the correct reading when you have finished with skies! Do not, however, under-expose colour negative film (used for making colour prints), as the resulting prints will look washed out. A polarizing filter is a good way of enhancing skies, particularly when shooting at right angles to the sun.
Polarizing filters are rotated in a circular mount in front of the lens, so it is simple when focusing with an SLR camera to revolve the filter until the sky appears at its darkest. With a range finder camera, this will have to be done by eye. Having found the correct angle, very carefully place the filter back in its mount at the same angle.
Many people keep an ultraviolet or skylight filter permanently on the lens to protect it from scratches. This is a good idea and a clear UV filter will be an asset, but some skylight filters have a faint pink tinge to penetrate haze. However, this colour will also cut out a lot of blue, so it should be removed for cloud photography.
If you're photographing clouds near the sun, there are two ways of avoiding glare. You can either use a lens hood or position the sun behind a post or building.
Finally, a word of warning regarding sunsets. Never look at the sun through the camera or leave a camera focused on infinity, pointing at the sun, for any length of time. Your camera could be ruined!
Watercolour lends itself to ethereal weather effects such as mist, fog and subtle light conditions, and here I've tried to show some effects which you might like to try It can be great fun to experiment, but don't expect to achieve perfection at the first attempt. This is an ideal way to reuse your discarded paintings. Try too on various makes and surfaces, as they all respond differently. My own favourite, Bockingford, is very forgiving and responsive to, for instance, the removal of paint with a hog's hair brush to achieve streaks of light on water, while some other papers are more reluctant to give up their paint.
There is no weather effect that, with ingenuity and practice, cannot be portrayed.
This is an attempt to convey the damp misty atmosphere of an early morning in November. The sun was making a brave attempt to break through the moisture-laden sky. This is one of the few paintings on which I have used masking fluid — I don't really like it, but sometimes it does achieve a better effect. After painting the fluid over the sun and allowing it to dry, I washed over the whole sky area with a mixture of raw sienna and lemon yellow. While this was still very damp, 1 circled the sun with a mixture containing a little burnt sienna, ultramarine and alizarin crimson, strengthening the mix as I moved over to the right. Although I feel that this is a very worthwhile effect, to attempt it can be a bit tricky, so you have to expect one or two failures. Immediately after the sky was completed, I made up a much stronger mixture of the same colour and used this to drop in the trees. Again, the timing and water content are of vital importance. The rest of the picture was completed in harmonious colours, keeping everything very simple. The last thing of all was to remove the masking fluid, having made sure that the sky was completely dry.
In this picture of Mount Hood in Oregon, my initial aim was to portray the ground mist around the base of the trees. For this I used a strong mix to put in the profile of the trees, adding much more water as I moved down. Back in the studio, I decided to add snow as an experiment, using an old toothbrush and opaque white gouache. The spatter effect comes from rubbing the paint-laden toothbrush with the handle of my rigger. I must admit that I began with some trepidation, but I feel that the result is quite pleasing. The mountain is simply virgin paper, while the foreground snow has been washed over to echo the sky.
It was the intensity of light on the water that attracted me here. The effect was quite dazzling, as the rest of the scene was rather overcast. The sky itself was fairly complex, with lots of varying shades of warm colour. The main problem was to get the sparkling effect. Taking a deep breath before starting, the method I used was, with my hake and very wet paint, to move the brush very quickly and extremely lightly across the page. If this can be done with one stroke, so much the better. The colour just touches the high points in the paper surface and leaves the indents paint-free. It is probably wise to practise this technique on a spare piece of paper first! I waited until this area was properly dry before putting in the foreground colour.
I'm frequently asked when teaching students about basic skies how to get the effect of rays of light coming from beneath a cloud. The answer is quite simple. You don't use paint but an eraser, once the painting is dry. Caution and gentleness are the key words. There are three different erasers you can try: ink erasers, which are rather harsh; ordinary pencil erasers, which are softer; and softer still are the putty erasers. Try experimenting with all three on a discarded painting. The make of paper makes a difference too. For instance, Bockingford responds quite differently from Arches. Be discreet with this technique - understatement is best here.
This was one of those magical mornings - a morning to be out on one's own at five a.m., watching the mist rise from the ground as dawn colours the sky above. Stillness pervades the atmosphere. I've tried to convey the various layers of mist as they recede into the background. Starting at the far horizon, the distant hills were put in while the sky was still damp. The hills were then diluted at the base. I then waited about thirty seconds before painting in the profile of the next row of trees. The colour for these was again diluted at the base. Even in a gentle, misty scene, one needs something sharp and crisp on which to focus the eye. In this case, the tree also acts as a link between sky and landscape.
Was this article helpful?
Become the artist you want to be Canvas Painting for the Beginner. Have you always wanted to paint but did not know the first thing about it? Have you sketched thousands of pictures in your sketch book and wanted to put them on canvas? Now you can with the help of this book. We teach you everything to get you started in the wonderful world of fine arts. You can learn to express yourself with color.