For the absolute beginner, part 1 – the sky

This describes whats happening in the above 2 minute video. Throughout the posts on this blog, the following process is touched on and observations and recommendations made. It would be worth your while to check out these posts as every painting is different.

Three colours plus black and white are used. Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Cobalt Blue. These are the exact colours I’ve used in many of the paintings in this blog. So its not a restricted range for the purpose of this demonstration. Other essential pieces of equipment are the flat mixing board (palette) and a flat mixing knife (palette knife). Flat is easier for mixing the colours and the knife is better than a brush (easier to clean between mixes). The two containers are for the medium and the solvent. The medium is Liquin, 50/50 with White Spirits. The other container has White Spirits only.

Lets say the beginner has a photo or sketch of a landscape and would like to ‘have a go’ at painting the scene. The painting of the sky can be as daunting as the painting of the scene. But a sky can be placed as a generic area of the painting and really can be fitted to a scene without affecting the overall scene. Placing a sky will get you well into the painting, and the sense of accomplishment will be good for your morale. With practice and confidence in future paintings, variations can be introduced into the sky to more closely fit a particular scene.

Establish the horizon line. Distant hills and mountains (on the horizon) are usually above this line and I like to treat them as part of the sky. This sky can be considered as a backdrop to the real painting of the foreground and mid distance.

Stain the canvas with pure blue and white spirits only as a rough idea of cloud shapes. Wipe off excess until the area is dry. Its good not to have a stark white area to paint into and any bits you might not cover with later paint layers won’t be that noticeable.

Mix a mid blue. Add blue to white until the colour is ‘sky blue’. Add a little yellow to warm the blue. Wet the brush with the minimum of the medium and stir it into the blue mix. Paint on the colour in large ‘dabs’. Drag the colour downwards and it will thin out and get lighter. Add pure blue to the mix on the ‘top’ of the sky. This gives an ‘aerial’ perspective to the sky – deep blue above your head and light blue at the horizon.

Take some of the blue mix, add Burnt Sienna and black until a grey colour is established. You might have to add more blue or Burnt Sienna to balance the colour towards a ‘colourless’ grey. Black will darken the grey without affecting the colour. Roughly dab in the cloud shapes on the shadow side (right side in this painting).

Clean the brush, not thoroughly, with a dry tissue or rag. Into a fresh piece of white add a little white. Place this colour on the light side of the cloud shapes (left). Roughly blend the light and shadows in the mid areas of the cloud shapes.

Remove excess paint from the brush and blend the entire sky with cross hatching strokes with light touches of the brush. The sky is now soft and misty. Re-establish the highlights of the clouds. This requires a careful approach. Less is better than more.

Very distant hills or mountains are added with the grey of the clouds with a little more Burnt Sienna added. This ‘red’ will make the hills look closer than the sky.

NOTE: The entire painting of this sky was completed with a single brush. It was wiped but not cleaned between the various colours. You can let the painting dry for a few days or continue the painting. If you loose control of the painting, leave it aside for a few days and start afresh. The previous attempt, when dry, could be overpainted so it may not be a complete loss.

Added on 21st Dec. 2013: Also check out this post for a slightly different method (here).

Added on 7th Sept. 2015: Check out Bob Lynch’s comment below for an analysis of colour use in these paintings.


31 thoughts on “For the absolute beginner, part 1 – the sky

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  5. I so love you. Thank you for liking my painting (even though it’s really not good) so I would come and find your site. I have no formal training and I pretty much do whatever, so it’s nice to come here and get some solid guidance.

    • Thank you. I believe the value in painting is in the act of painting. I liked your painting because I think you liked painting it. As a self taught painter, like yourself, I am tired of the pretentious paintings of obscure ‘arty’ subjects. I want to share what I’ve picked up on my artistic journey and I hope you find something in my blog which will make your painting experience more enjoyable. Thanks again.

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  8. thanks writing all this down, I’m really bad following courses or something like that, I’m always more of the try and error method, but at some point you need “real information” to go on with the exploration ….

  9. Love your blog! Thank you for liking my post, and directing me here. Nice to find a blog talking about oil painting. I am total beginner and want to practise. Thanks!

  10. Dear Liam
    Since many years ago (too many I would say) I had desired to try oil painting but every time I started it looked as a big task, without head or feet. Your explanations had make it understandable and the desire for oil painting is now stronger tan ever. Now I have some oils, a canvas, several brushes, and a knife that are waiting for me. Thanks for your time and your explanations. Finally, let me tell you that your paintings are so beatiful. Saludos desde México.

  11. Thanks for the visit to my blog. I’ve shared your instructional videos with my group “The Windsor & Essex County Plein Air Society”. I love the way you condense your video’s. You give a lot of information in a short period of time, which is so helpful for people who have an extremely busy life. Cheers!

  12. Liam, please keep adding more information and your great paintings this as helped so many people with their paintings, I would like to thank you for your help. Regards Dean

  13. Hi Liam,
    Thank you for putting all this online. Your videos (specially this one) were an extremly helpfull push in the right direction for me today. It taught me a lot and I finally made something I found acceptable. On to the next one 😀
    Best regards, Jeroen

  14. I’ve been hunting around your absolutely delightful site for a bit of Liam’s Opinion About His Primal Palates … and couldn’t find it. Basically though, for the absolute beginner, is the idea Liam follows:

    3 PRIMARY RULE: there are THREE primaries, one to represent reddish, one yellowish, and one bluish.

    2 HUE RULE: there are TWO hue adjusters. Whitish, and blackish, neither very warm nor cool.

    1 BLEND RULE: there is ONE blender: white spirits.

    Many a fine-arts (easel painting, especially) instructor will say things like “don’t use black! ever!”, but this is just pedantic posturing in the era of modern pigments (which can produce all sorts of transparent and opaque ‘blacks’ by mixing perfectly complimentary mixtures of highly saturated pigments together.). Reality is, just as white is irreplaceable in lightening hues, a neutral black is also a marvel of convenience for similarly darkening hues.

    But as to the 3 primaries which Liam uses … this is where you will discover his genius.

    NOTE that he doesn’t ever use the ”grammar school primaries” … bright yellow, bright blue, bright (if somewhat muddy) red. They’re as subtle as cutting butter with a meat cleaver. They’re sharp, opinionated, palate hogs: take a bit of bright yellow and touch into it a dot of blue, and it can become almost blue-green. Green is hard to control. Add a dot of bright red, and the whole thing turns brown. Or grayish. So hard to get tonal subtlety from.

    Liam instead chooses his reds from the ‘red-value’ series. Burnt sienna (red-orange in an Autumnal sort of way), or Indian Red (in a Summer range), all the way to Alizarin (the Spring-Summar red). He even will edge toward the darkest sort of red, Burnt Umber or Vandyke Brown. The Winter reds. His yellows are also similarly seasonal, where when lighter they may be Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, or the more difficult but Summery Cadmium yellows. Liam chooses his blues from the French-Italian palate tradition: Ultramarine is the brightest, Cobalt is less so, but similar, and Cerulean is the least, the blue with the most ‘air’. Prussian blue is, like ochre is to yellow, an intense but still more muted blue. Almost anywhere ultramarine might go, Prussian can too.

    Don’t worry too much about the cost of the colors – they’re actually used quite sparingly by Liam’s painting techniques. Just take a look at the little blobs that he measures out on the palate before the video time lapses of paintings start! Only the white seems ever to be replenished, and maybe the yellow hue. The rest are good to go.

    Somewhere else in Liam’s site, there IS information about colors, and the inadvisability of buying “color sets”. This really is sound advice. Almost never are inexpensive color-sets outfitted with the subtle colors that make his oil technique so artistic. Almost never will the paints themselves be “buttery and rich”. Just buy ANY of Liam’s paintings 5 tubes, and stick with them. Even if you paint 100 paintings, and like all painters will have a box of partially used tubes … even then, you really ought not to have more than 4 or 5 reds, yellows and 2 or 3 blues.

    FINALLY regarding 3 very particular colors which are essentially impossible to obtain without TINY tubes of the stuff in your collection (when you advance a bit)… rose, magenta and violet. Yes, of course (if we believe grammar school color mixology) the rose to violet hues can be created by mixing reds and blues. But … once you really work with the palate, you will find that they’re the most muted of all blends, and lack the lively vitality that one might want for representing the petals of flowers and the remarkable colors in an evening sky.

    There’s a reason for this, based on how colors really work (and not the grammar school explanation). For the most part, pigments are SUBTRACTIVE … white light hits a pigment, and it reflects some of the light, and absorbs the rest of the spectrum. Yellow, for instance might strongly absorb blue and green and even some red… but reflect most of the yellow-orange to yellow-greeen light, leaving a nice bright yellow hue that we perceive.

    Red likewise will also absorb blue, and green … and yellow-green and yellow. And if deep enough, maybe even yellow-orange and orange. LEAVING red to reflect away, back to our eyes. We “see red”. If you’re still following, you probably have abstracted what the blue pigments do. Yep… reflect blue, but absorb yellow-green, yellow, yellow-orange, orange and red. Gone.

    Therefore, when you mix together blue and red pigments, the red is absorbing blue, and the blue is absorbing red. Not much is left to reflect back! Therefore, although we perceive the mix as purple, it is almost always a very dark, muddy hue. Because our otherwise bright and friendly red and blue have absorbed each other’s reflected colors!

    The ONLY way to get true roses, purples, violets and magentas … is to have a pigment that reflects both red and blue (in varying amounts), but absorbs the green band. This is exactly what the artist’s rose … magenta … violet and purple paints do, when bought in tube. Alizarin almost does this, but if you lighten it up with white, you see that the result is quite pink. Only the red-part of the spectrum is much reflected. Blue is absorbed.

    By comparison, if you take a dot of Dioxazine Purple, or Thio Violet or simply Magenta and dilute with white, you will note that the ”violet” gets lighter and lighter, but doesn’t become pink. Or blue. Hence why just one small tube of the ‘center of the purples’ is helpful. From it, like the other primaries, one can then obtain most any other color by the judicious palate blending of a bit of red-hue with magenta, or blue-hue.

    Bob Lynch / Aug 12 2015

    • Thank you Bob for your very analytical and considered opinion on the technique. You put into words and thoughts some things I would never have thought to convey. This comment will most certainly add to my limited words on the method I’m trying to explain. Thank you for the ‘fresh eye’ look at what I’m doing, which because I’m so long involved in painting have overlooked the obvious. Your comment is welcome as a valuable informative addition to this page and will be of interest to beginners and veterans alike. I found it very informative 🙂

  15. Gosh cannot believe all those lovely pictures and all the info you have given me access to – thankyou ever so much

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