You're probably tired of hearing from one or another artist that you should paint a sky a day. Although it's good advice, most of us are never able to put it into practice.
If you are serious about developing your sky painting, the first thing to do is learn to draw them. For this, you need much less equipment than usual. A spiral-bound sketchbook and a soft pencil are really sufficient. However, if you want to experiment with charcoal, you'll need a putty rubber and a spray fixative as well. It's a good thing to keep this one sketchbook entirely for skies, and always have it with you. It will soon become a valuable source of knowledge and reference.
Perhaps it is best, at first, to choose skies with just a few simple clouds, then build up from there until you can handle massive or complex cloud formations.
Now you're outdoors, don't be in too much of a hurry to put pencil to paper. Attempt to familiarize yourself with the changing patterns. Forget about the scene below and concentrate exclusively on the sky. The first decision you must make is what direction the light is coming from. Then you need to know which way the clouds are moving. Even if the clouds are moving fast, don't
This late winter's afternoon simply glowed as the gold of the sky was reflected in the snow. There's very little white in a picture like this and colour harmony is the most important factor. Unusually, I used a small amount of cadmium orange in the sky to give impact. The rest of the sky was very much wet into wet, with the mauve clouds being allowed to diffuse on the steeply angled paper. The more you tilt the paper, of course, the faster the wash will run. There is a certain amount of'lost and found' in the distant woods. The use of dry brush in the snow contrasts well with the wet into wet sky.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as painting on location - once you've found a suitable subject!
try to rush, since most of the shapes will be repeated again and again, rather like the patterns found in a fast-moving stream. Don't try to include everything you see in the sky, but select the part with the most interesting cloud formations. When painting outdoors, I've often painted the landscape in front of me but the sky from behind, because it had the most interesting shapes and patterns.
Once you've had a good look, decided on the light source and the direction of cloud movement, you can begin the drawing. Start in the centre of the paper, to give yourself more freedom as the clouds move. At this stage, ignore the detail and simply attempt to indicate the main cloud shapes.
I visit the coast of Maine each year to teach in the lobster-fishing village of Port Clyde. It is surrounded by islands and estuaries, which arc a delight to any painter. Much of the painting was done wet into wet, including the foreground and sky. A sky like this needs to be done standing up, using a free whole arm movement. These broad sweeps add a strong feeling of movement, as a contrast to the static boats. The calligraphy of the foreground grasses provides a satisfying foil to the wet into wet of the water.
More difficult is the problem of comparing the darkest tone in the sky with the darkest part of the landscape. You'll find that the sky is never as dark as the landscape, except during a storm. After all, the sky is inevitably the source of light. It is always better to err on the light side when you're shading the clouds. Too strong a tone will detract from the shape and character of a cloud.
As with all tonal sketches, keep them relatively small. That way they will be much easier to control. While on location, stick to the facts and put down only what you can see. Back in the studio, you can use your imagination and memory to build free and dramatic skies. Confidence will grow rapidly with practice, so keep trying!
Moving from pencil to charcoal, there is room here for experimenting. Try using your fingertips
As many of you will have realized, I love what I always think of as Seago country - the Norfolk Broads - and no year would be complete for me without at least one visit. Because of the Hat landscape, the skies assume a greater importance here than anywhere else I know of. This is a view looking across the River Thurne in the late afternoon. I used Prussian blue at the top of the sky, allowing it to merge into the original raw sienna wash. I then added the clouds while the mixture was still damp.
and putty eraser to take out the light clouds from the medium tones. All this drawing will have improved your knowledge of skies and cloud formations, and with this under your belt you are ready to go outside with your watercolours.
You don't want to make life more complicated than it need be, so keep your equipment to the minimum. Aim to be able to carry the whole lot under one arm, but check that you have the essentials. My own check list reads as follows: plastic art bin containing soft pencil, tubes of paint, three brushes, collapsible water pot, plastic bottle of water, rags and two spring clips (for holding the loose corners of the pad down). Besides the bin, I have the Bockingford pad, with a hard-board backing, plastic palette and metal easel.
Once you've established your site, have everything close at hand. Hang your water pot on a hook just below the pad, so that it's instantly available. Personally, I prefer to stand at the easel, particularly when I'm painting clouds. It gives much more freedom of movement. Try never to have the sun directly on your paper. Apart from the discomfort of having to screw your eyes up against the light, it makes judging tones much more difficult and the painting will look 'washed out' back in the studio. The second you feel a spot of rain, turn your paper over. Even a faint drizzle will ruin your sky in seconds!
In this Welsh estuary scene the sky was lively and exciting, with clouds on different levels. Into the original raw sienna wash, I painted the blue of the sky. The cumulonimbus clouds below are a mixture of wet into wet and have edged gaps, helping to create the breezy conditions. Note how the colours in the beach echo the clouds, and the distant hills take on the blue of the sky, all helping to promote a sense of unity.
We're back in Maine now, this time looking inland with my back to the sea at high tide. At low tide there would have been only a trickle of water down the middle of the channel. Although there were clouds at mail)' different levels, they were fairly static, and the scene was very peaceful and still. Although it is tiny, the distant dinghy attracts the eye, positioned as it is as the darkest dark against the lightest light. Also, of course, it's the only man-made object in the scene. The lighting in the sky was interesting. The sunlit cream of the distant cumulus contrasted well with the deeper colours and all were reflected in the water below. I've continued this into the foreground grasses.
Wo discussed in the last chapter the basic techniques for the various cloud formations, although when you're in the great outdoors these won't fall into neat categories. As you look in different directions, you may see mixed skies. In one area you may see cirrus on top, with stratus underneath. Don't try to paint the sky from one horizon to the next; just choose one small area which has a particularly interesting pattern.
Turning to practical matters, now of course you'll need more equipment. I always use a good, strong, metal Italian easel, very simple and requiring little effort and skill to erect, unlike some wooden ones I've seen. On the easel, I have a hardboard backing for the watercolour pads, then I tip the board to at least 45 degrees. Gravity can be a useful ally when you're painting skies. I could not even contemplate painting a sky on a fiat surface. Because I'm often demonstrating to a crowd of students, my board may be even steeper, at about 70 degrees. As I've said before, you will need to be painting quickly, so have all your basic colours ready. Raw sienna, Payne's grey, alizarin and blue are, I find, sufficient for most skies. The only other materials I've used in the paintings you see here are my hake, water and a rag. I find the collapsible pot I use for water invaluable.
As with the sketches, it might be a good thing to have a watercolour pad just for skies which can be kept and used as reference for future pictures. So often we're faced with a boring, flat sky in
front of us when we're painting landscape. This is when your reference pad will come into its own.
Accept at the outset that there are going to be failures. There is no doubt about it, watercolour is much more difficult to handle than just pushing a pencil around. Inevitably you're going to use too much water at first, and your clouds will sag and run. It's vital to compensate for the water content in the first wash by making the following wash stronger than you think it should be. A good quote to remember is, 'If a wash looks right
when it's wet, it's wrong when its dry.' In other words, watercolour, especially in skies, always dries lighter than when it is first put on. Speed too is essential. It's no good letting your first raw-sienna wash dry while you're mixing the second. In fact, these are the two things you really have to work at: water content and speed. They will come only with confidence, and the more you practise, the more confident you will become. Select the essential features of the sky for your painting and simplify them by working with the big brush, quickly and decisively. Giving yourself a time limit of, say, fifteen minutes could also help.
You'll be surprised at how soon you'll be working with increased confidence, authority and — very important, this - pleasure!
Although this chapter is very much water-colour-based, many of the principles apply equally to oils and to pastels, and you can see my 'outdoor kit' for these media in the chapter on materials. However, my metal easel is so adaptable that it can, in fact, be used for any medium.
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