Understanding Skies

If you're really serious about depicting convincing skies, then you'll bear with me while I explain how skyscapes are formed. Without wishing to sound negative, I have to say that many painters seem to put on various colours in a random rather than a constructive way, hoping that the result will somehow be convincing. It usually isn't! It's rather like an author attempting a novel without having researched his subject: the gaps in his knowledge will quickly become obvious to all.

Basically, it's absolutely essential to know at least the various cloud formations and how they come into being. At the risk of stating the obvious, clouds are formed as a result of the exchange of moisture between the earth and its atmosphere, the rise and fall of barometric pressure, together with temperature changes, and the winds, which vary in speed and altitude as they move the air across the land. Clouds appear, disappear and take their different shapes as these conditions vary. The powers that be have classified cloud forms into ten major types, divided into three groups according to their altitude. The names are based on four simple Latin words:

CIRRUS Fringe or thread CUMULUS Heap STRATUS Layer NIMBUS Rain

Don't let any of this frighten you, but rather take heart. As an artist, what you are trying to do is to capture the atmosphere created by the

This exciting evening sky by Doug Fontaine is the sort that takes your breath away and lasts only a few minutes. There is a strong feeling of movement in this inspirational photograph.

wonderful shapes, which alter constantly as you watch. You may say, as many of my students do, 'It's impossible - it's all happening too fast.' But, like a fast-moving stream, the overall pattern is repeated again and again. You could find your early attempts a little depressing; they may be timid and lacking in conviction. Don't be put off, though. Persevere and your confidence will increase with practice. Remember, the illusion you're trying to create is of a vast dome of space against which clouds are constantly moving. Once you're over that initial fear, you will begin to really enjoy the excitement. Myself, I get more fun out of painting skies than anything else.

In the next few pages I'll be showing you photographs of the various cloud types which will, I hope, make the whole business more understandable and interesting.


These are the highest cloud types, forming at about 6,000-1'2,000 metres (20,000-40,000 feet). Made up of ice crystals, they create a wonderful variety of delicate textures, some of which you will know and recognize as 'mare's tails'. They can appear at any angle and so offer far more in a compositional sense than any other cloud formation. Within the cirrus family there are two other formations, cirrocumulus and cirrostratus, both of which are illustrated here.

This example of cirrocumulus lias formed into a light 'mackerel' sky, in a series of ripples, just as you find on a sandy shore as the tide goes out. (/•'. Norton)

This is an example of the sort of cirrus we most readily recognize. The 'mare's tails' are formed by strands trailing from a small hook or tuft. These clouds can probably be seen at their most beautiful as they catch the rays of a setting sun. (R. K. Pilsbury)

Here we see cirrostratus throwing a thin veil over the entire sky, through which the sun can still be seen, the cloud forming a halo effect around it. (R. K. Pilsbury)


The highest clouds with cumulus in their manes are known as altocumulus and altostratus. These form at about 2,000-3,500 metres (7,000-20,000 feet). The altocumulus can create very beautiful cloud shapes, while the altostratus are simply level layers of featureless grey.

The lowest cloud formations contain strato-cumulus, stratus, nimbostratus, cumulus and cumulonimbus, all of which are formed up to 2,000 metres (7,000 feet).

This photograph (opposite, above) was taken when the sun was low in the sky and the difference in colouring shows two quite distinct layers. (C. S. Iiroonifield)

Here we see (opposite, below) the altocumulus of a chaotic sky in several layers. The lowest appears grey in the light of the setting sun. (C. S. Iiroonifield)

Featureless Altostratus

This lovely Aberdeen sunset shows up the altocumulus in its lenticular form. You'll see it featured in many of the illustrations throughout this book. (R. K. Pilsbury)

The clouds here are reflecting the colours of the evening sun. Because of the height of the sun, the clouds arc lit from below, and the shadows, unlike in a daylight sky, are at the tops of the clouds. (C. S. Iiroonifield)

On these pages I've concentrated, along with altocumulus, on cumulus and cumulonimbus as the most interesting artistically speaking. Cumulus are fluffy and white, cauliflower-shaped on top, with a flatter base which will always appear parallel to the horizon. Cumulonimbus will often provide a strong compositional aid, as the tops of the masses of vertical clouds spread out to form strong anvil shapes.

This is a classic example of a cauliHower-shaped cumulus cloud, which can completely dominate a sky in a very dramatic way. Sunlit parts are mostly brilliant white, while bases are relatively dark - a positive gift to a painter! (/<. K. Pilsbury)

Here we see (opposite, below) a mixture of stratocumulus and cumulus clouds. The stratocumulus are at about 1,000 metres (3,500 feet), while the cumulus are at 600 metres (2,000 feet), forming an interesting mix. (D. Fontaine)

The small cumulus clouds are arranged here in parallel lines, called cloud streets. Notice the rapid change of size as they diminish towards the horizon. (C. S. liroo infield)

Sky Oil Canvas

Although cumulonimbus clouds (right) often present an anvil shape, you have to be in the right position to see it. If the clouds are directly above your head, the shape is not apparent. These skies, being darker and more threatening in appearance, give good opportunity for richness and texture in a sky. (S. D. Burt)

Texture Sky Portrait

The characteristic anvil shape is clearly seen here, giving a strong vertical element, which would lend itself well to a portrait-shaped painting. (R. K. Pilsbury)

Stratocumulus clouds (right) often occur in patches or layers composed of rounded masses or rolls. Sometimes the elements lie in parallel bands, with light gaps appearing between them. Due to perspective, the bands may appear to converge towards the horizon.

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Canvas Painting For Beginners

Canvas Painting For Beginners

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