Painting another realistic sky

Abandoned House, Graney

Abandoned House, Graney

I notice in many instructional painting videos, the items in a landscape are represented as solid shapes as they should be, but clouds are painted in the same way as solid objects. There seems to be no consideration of the nature of skies. The fact that the sky is not solid means it should be painted in a different way to how the solid objects are painted. ‘Dabbing’ white paint onto a blue gradient to represent a sky is the least helpful method for a beginner. Apart from poorly representing what we see or what we know a sky is like, the method is ‘dead-ended’ and does not allow progression and improvement through practice. In other words, the first ‘dabbed’ sky you paint will be the same as your last.

This post is an explanation of the method I use to paint realistic skies. You might find it useful. I have included a video in real time which will make it easier to see the process.

I used only 3 colours in this painting, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue. All 3 were used in the sky. The subject of the painting determined these colours. To create the sky I always use same colours as are used in the rest of the painting. This helps overcome the first difficulty in painting a sky, that is, making it an integral part of the scene. As a bonus there will be a harmony of colour within the painting.

Using photos of skies, is helpful when I plan a sky to fit into a painting. You will never find a perfect sky which can be copied. Its the effects of light and shapes I find helpful. The overall composition of the painting will dictate the sky in the final painting.

Its important that there is an ‘apparent’ randomness in the shapes of clouds. It cannot be completely random as in a photo, because it has to add to the entire composition. If we look at the painting above, the tree and the foreground on the left must be balanced by something on the right. This is almost achieved by the old house. Its position is just off-centre, but not far enough, and the composition will need a little more on the right to achieve balance. The sky provides this by adding weight to the right hand side. In planning the sky I will put more colours and shapes into the right side and have the left side, more or less, featureless. This part of the process happens mostly in the final stages of the sky painting.

To go back to the beginning, firstly I start with the cloud shapes. I used pure blue and solvent to roughly sketch out the shapes. This is deliberately ‘rough’ to introduce as many random patterns and shapes which will be developed later. Before the solvent completely evaporates, I paint a mixture of white with a tiny amount of yellow into the parts that will form the final cloudless blue bits. At this stage I am conscious of the need to concentrate on the right side.

I now make a mix of grey for the cloud shadows. So into what remains of the previous colour, I add red (Burnt Sienna), then more blue and a little black to get a mid grey. This is a nice clean colour as there are only 2 colours and the tiniest amount of a third, the yellow. Painted flatly this would produce a boring area of grey. But the patchy blue on the canvas and the remains of the white on the brush ensures that there is enough variation in this area. The next grey is a lighter grey made from white and a little black. This is applied with the same brush onto areas already painted so this neutral grey will vary into multiple colours. The final shapes of clouds are beginning to appear and I will try and get as much ‘apparent’ randomness into these shapes as I progress. More red and black is added to the grey for the clouds at the top as this part of the sky is closest to the viewer.

At this stage I start to blend the various patches of colour together. At the same time, with the same brush, I paint in cloud shapes especially on the right hand side. The blending action will pick up paint on the brush and this is used to paint in the cloud shapes. This blending is an alternating series of diagonal, vertical and horizontal light swipes of the brush on paint surface.

The paint must be the right thickness on the surface, the solvent must be almost evaporated and, of course, the colours must be in the right place. The same brush, a wide filbert, is used from start to finish without cleaning. No medium was used, only the solvent, white spirits. Its a skill requiring a bit of practice but well worth the effort. For me its a great method to represent non-solid objects in a painting. Remember, apart from clouds, mist, fog, smoke, rain etc., reflections on water are also non solid and can be represented using this method.

As the details of shadows or highlights are painted, I will continue to blend the colours until the final stages when the last highlights are painted in. Sometimes these also get the blending treatment.

Here’s the video of the process. I hope you find it helpful. See you soon.

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