Here is a question from a reader about sky design:
© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery www.portlandgallery.com
As a pleine air painter that may or may not finish most paintings in the studio, we often move things around for better compositional results. Churches, barns, trees, rocks, you name it, we can move it.
There is one huge part of the painting though that is always dynamic and ever-changing, the sky and cloud-formations. Often fleeting and ephemeral in nature, they are one of the few elements of a painting that are not tangible, so we have to truly design them in to every painting we do, and I often find that a badly designed cloud pattern can ruin a painting. An impressive sky can be the most dramatic thing to see, and its extremely difficult to capture that.Any specific approach other than doing countless studies? Any tips on who we can look to who has great sense of sky-design?
- I have found that the painters who worked in the lowland and flat countries often excelled at skies. This would be the Dutch masters and the English. They often devoted more than half of their pictures to their skies so they had to make them excellent. The two examples on this page are a Constable above and a more contemporary Englishman Edward Seago (a great hero of mine).
- John Constable said: "The sky is the chief organ of sentiment in a painting". Much of the emotional and expressive quality of landscape comes from the sky. Forget that at your peril. A blank sky is easy to do, but often doesn't help the expression of feeling. Landscapes should make the viewer feel something.
- Observation and painting sketches of the sky are useful, but that is only half the puzzle and maybe a smaller piece than that, DESIGN is in my opinion, the important thing. A sky is an abstract arrangement of lights and darks first and meteorology second.
- Skies are an arrangement of three or sometimes four value shapes arranged over top of, or interwoven with one another.
- It is the warm yellows and reds in a sky that make it have light, besides its value. You can pound all the blue in the world into a sky and it won't light up. I am sure you have seen paintings in a thrift store or yard sale that have a sky that has been painted with pthalo blue and look totally amateurish. I like to underpaint a sky with a warm tone and throw my blue down into that. This way I assure that the warm notes are embedded there from the beginning.
- The sky is the source of light, therefore it will generally be higher in value than all in the landscape that merely receives that light. The sky is almost always higher in value than the land and trees etc. This goes for the whole sky, by the way, usually including the clouds as well.
- Often a sky will progress from one quarter of the painting to another. The clouds are coming from somewhere and go marching to somewhere.
- Perspective is important in designing clouds. they have subtle lines suggesting where they recede to the paintings vanishing points.
- Sneaking colors from the landscape up into a sky will help tie them into the world beneath their "feet". Be aware of, and use warm and cool variations in the color of your skies. For instance, rather than painting the undersides of clouds gray, ask yourself is this a warm or a cool shadow? Is there another sneaky color in that gray as well? There are a zillion possible grays, and all of them are better than a generic mixture of white and ivory black. Try mixing complements to form the grays of your clouds. Easy does it too, it is easy to overdo the shadowed parts of clouds and thus make them too assertive and heavy. They are made of water vapor, not depleted uranium.
- Watch out for repeated shapes and intervals. It is best to have a great variety of shapes and sizes in a sky. Of course the nearest clouds will usually be large and the more distant, small. Play that up, in order to get recession.
- It often helps to add a little red at the top or zenith of a sky. That will help bring it over the viewers head, rather than rising as a wall behind the landscape.A sky is a dome not a flat plane.
- Strive for an artistic and uneven distribution of your clouds, rather than a 50-50 allotment. Either make the sky more clouds than open sky, or more open sky than clouds.
- Overlap your cloud's forms to show that some are in front of others. I have seen many paintings where the clouds are like potatoes of the same size distributed evenly across the heavens like big polka dots.
- Some painters to study for their skies are, Constable, and Seago, of course' but also, Inness, Edgar Payne ( very abstract and designy), Ruisdael, Jan Van Goyen and Eric Sloan and Fredrick Church.
- I photograph interesting skies and keep a file of them. I don't copy them into pictures but deconstruct them. I try to figure out what it is that characterizes their shapes, edges and value patterns. Copying a photo of a sky above your landscape seldom works very well. A sky need to be tailored to its landscape like a suit needs to be tailored to its owner. Off the rack skies are ill fitting and cheap. Avoid em!
- Try putting butter in your shoes, it will make of your entire body a giant electromagnet.