Photographs as a Source

In this chapter I've gathered together some photographs which I hope you'll find useful as reference material. There's no way that you could copy these precisely and in any case you wouldn't want to. However, they may be a good starting point for some experiments with skies, or even a source of inspiration.

There's one technicality which I should explain here. You'll notice that many of the landscapes underneath the skies are very dark. This is because the photographers have had to underexpose the base in order to provide clarity and definition in the sky. Naturally, this isn't a problem the artist painting on site has to contend with -perhaps this is why the best paintings are still those done en plan air. As you look through these pages, you'll see that most of the photographs show a good use of cloud types. Perhaps cirrus on one side, with cumulus or cumulonimbus 011 the other. However, I think you'll agree that they are all stimulating to the imagination. I haven't included any monochrome skies, either clear blue or overcast.

One of the useful aspects of these photographs is that they allow you to see the natural design of a sky which, although it may be changing constantly, is always there. Perhaps once you've seen it captured by the camera, it will be easier to see when you're looking at an actual sky. For example, often when I've been out driving in the car I've noticed a wonderful build-up of cumulus cloud,

Evening drama is the phrase that comes to mind here in this rather threatening cloud formation. Having sunk below the horizon, the sun still lights the clouds with an uneasy orange glow.

Glowing Orange Sky Reflectiaon

Here we have a warm evening sky with delicate streaks of cirrus adding to the tranquillity of the scene. The crisp vertical trees emphasize, and contrast with, the soft horizontal composition of the sky. Notice too the reflections in the calm water of the foreground. Think about the colour change from the top to the bottom of the sky as well. (D. Fontaine)

similar to that on page 80, and it simply hasn't been possible to stop and capture it, but with practice I've been able to remember the general design, which has helped when I've got back to the studio. Another thing that is easier to see in photographs is the way clouds are formed by the negative shapes behind them. There are good examples of this on pages 76 and 77.

Another evening sky, this time of much more complexity, with many different cloud shapes. There are altocumulus and altostratus, together with some delicate cirrus, all combining to create an interesting, chaotic sky. Notice the lost and found edges of the horizon, which add a sense of variety and drama to the scene. (D. Fontaine)

What immediately attracted me to this photograph (opposite, above) was the wonderful sweep of the S-shaped design, giving an opportunity to attempt to capture the scene feeling in a painting. One way would be to echo the flow in the landscape.

The strong design element (opposite, below) here is the dominant cloud on the right, being balanced by the tree on the left. It's obviously a windy day, with lots of movement in the cumulonimbus cloud formation. A few wind-tossed birds would add to the atmosphere, (i). Fontaine)

There is a tremendous variety of cloud types here (right), from the high cirrus to the nimbus piling up near the horizon, giving a feeling of space and depth. There would be plenty of opportunity for experimenting with colour in the cloud.

The main feature below is the strong negative shape, which gives an immediate lead into the design of the scene. If you were taking this photograph as a source for a painting, you would have to use your skill and imagination to produce a foreground to complement the pattern of the sky.

There's almost a confusion of clouds here, so probably the best idea would be to simplify the cloud shapes. Think too about the differences in size as the clouds recede towards the horizon. There is plenty of counterchange here as well: you can see it between the dark and light clouds, and between the cloud and the blue sky. Care should be taken to balance the weights of both the clouds and the foreground scene. (D. Fontaine)

No rainbow is going to wait while you get out your paints, but it may well be possible to capture it on film. You're then confronted with the challenge of reproducing these colours in paint. It's possibly slightly easier in pastel or oil, but more exciting in watercolour. One constant feature which you can rely on, though, is that the colours are always in exactly the same order.


There is an incredible amount of drama in this scene (below), with vast contrasts of both colour and tone. Use these elements to design your own sky, remembering that in any painting it is better to have the main feature — in this case, the sun - off centre. If you're using water as a foreground, make sure that the sky colours are repeated in it.

The main problem with this type of scene is to capture the drama without lapsing into gaudiness. Subtlety is the keyword here, relying on contrast of tone rather than brightness of colour. Remember too that a landscape would not usually be as dark as this.

This is a good example of cumulus cloud, with its cauliflower shapes building up from a Hatter base. You'll often see these on a breezy summer day, when the Huffy whiteness provides a wonderful contrast with the blue sky behind. I always feel that they give artists an opportunity to get strong pattern into their painting.

This is another evening sky over the Severn Bridge, which is visible from my home. Each time I cross the bridge, I see something to excite me, no matter what the weather condition. In this chaotic sky there are rich contrasts between dark and light, together with a good variety of cloud size.

Both photographs on these pages are of altocumulus skies, but taken at different times of day. In this early morning scene (below), the low sun is providing backlighting to the clouds from the bottom right of the picture. It's a good exercise to look at these photographs and decide where the light is coming from. Notice here how the sky is dominated by the large, mainly grey cloud in the top right.

Here the sun has disappeared behind the piled-up stratocumulus, giving the effect of stage lighting to the sky above. The three drifting clouds would be improved in a painting by varying their relative sizes. There is good opportunity here for the use of delicate, subtle colour.

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