Thursday, March 19, 2009

On painting the sky

image :

Above is a John Constable. 1776 -1837, the greatest English Landscape painter and on the short list for the best landscape painter who ever lived. I included this picture because I wished to quote him, John said; "the sky is the chief organ of sentiment in landscape painting".

What he meant was that the first place to operate when getting feeling into a landscape is the sky. I feel a bit presumptuous putting my painting on the same post as a Constable, but it has to be done.
I would begin by pointing out that this sky is entirely made up, there is no photographic reference for it at all. I sometimes use bits and pieces of photos of skies to build my clouds but generally I prefer to make them up. It really is an abstract expressionist sort of exercise. The danger is of course you could push it around for ever, and you need to make yourself stand by your decisions sometimes.

There is an enormous rising diagonal line implied in my sky. There is one in the Constable, and a whole lot of other paintings as well. We read from the left to the right, text and usually pictures too, and a rising line feels good, exalted, positive. A painting made with downward sagging lines is depressing or melancholy. People made with downward sagging lines are depressing as well. These are generalizations that often are true anyway.

I have laid out a pattern of decorative shapes along that rising line, accents that alternately slow or accelerate our passage along it. Think back to the Metcalf posts and remember me speaking of Willard, playing the same game in a landscape, not in the sky though. The most active and complicated shapes are strewn along this line. The shapes of the clouds are larger at the top, where they are nearly overhead and then they are tiny in the distance. I also threw some warm notes in the bottoms of those nearest large clouds to bring them forward. I am keeping the edges soft as I said before.

It is best to paint all of your edges in a sky super soft (blended ) and then to selectively harden some up as accents. I also divided the amount of blue sky and clouds unevenly. I don't want the same amount of each, one should predominate. I almost never want anything divided equally on a canvas. That's way too static. What I want is an artistic and pleasing inequality of division.

Theoretically every note in the sky except perhaps the nearest cloud bottoms should be lighter than anything on the land. The sky is the source of light and the earth is the receiver. Keeping that sky up in value is almost always a good idea, unless you are deliberately catching something light up against it in contrast. That's called counterchange (now I am going to have to do a post on that as well, remind me) Notice up in the Constable that his church spire is both more colored, warmer, lighter in places and darker in others than the sky behind it. Very, very fancy stuff. Smart.

The shapes in the sky are meant to counterbalance in this instance, and always to compliment the landscape below. I have painted it as I said with a 2 inch brush so it is brushy when you see it in real life. The landscape has brushwork in it so I feel that the sky should as well. The two should be parts of the larger cohesive whole painting, in order to get....U__________of E____________. fill in the blanks, If you don't know what goes in the blanks, you either just found this blog or you need to review some. The correct answer can be obtained by rubbing the bottom third of your monitor with an ordinary wax candle dipped in motor oil.

I will leave the sky alone now while I work on the rest of the landscape, although I will post another entry telling you more about the painted sky tomorrow and probably the next day. When I have finished the landscape the sky will be dry. I will again return to it. I will scrape out any ridges of paint or eye catching edges of brushstrokes and soften things up. I may throw some transparent glazes in there to modify areas slightly and I will probably insinuate some colors from the landscape below into the undersides of the clouds. If I do it very subtly it will go unnoticed and seem natural, like a reflection from the ground. This will serve to tie the sky and the ground together as well. I also might mix a tiny bit of the blue and cloud colors from the sky into the highlight portions of the ground, very sneaky like ,almost imperceptibly. This ties the ground in with the sky and makes it look even more like the source of light on the land is the sky.

Tomorrow more lines drawn on the sky.

Oh yeah, anybody else who wants to e-mail me an image. I will critique one or two on this blog soon. I won't let anyone know whose art it is, so you have another couple of days to get your act together. This is an $ 4.50 value and you could win it, absolutely free so send me those images.


JAMES A. COOK said...

Stap , you are differently applying the HERDING OF SHEEP,method here. The clouds complimenting the landscape helps keep your UNITY of EFFECT in your painting. I see how you are now looking for those sheep stragglers. I was studying your painting and rubbed the bottom of my screen like you said, not with motor oil, windex, and that alligator came through in the marsh. I didn't see him before.


Mike Thompson said...


There was a lot of white in the sky and white is usually not made with linseed oil. Did you use any Liquin or Galkyd so it would dry faster or are you going to take long enough on the land so that it dries naturally?

Another of the gazillion questions concerns glazing. I use glazes a lot, but then I tend to paint with little or no brush stroke showing because I mostly use soft synthetics in the studio. With streaky strokes, like from hog's hair bristles, doesn't the glaze tend to settle out almost like sedimenting watercolor pigments? It did look like the sky paint was fairly level after you softened it. Maybe I'm just overly concerned.


Stapleton Kearns said...

I guess I am more likely to "herd sheep" in the presence of nature. I did in a sense here though. I wet up the entire sky, not part of it and worked the whole thing at once. So I penned one group of sheep away from the rest and herded them. I do almost always if I am working on a passage' get the whole thing wet up and happening at once.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I did beat Galkyd into my white. The January 25th entry of this blog covers mediums and can tell you more. I always have some form of alkyd going on. I have a little oil cup of it on my palette as well.The sky is dry now.My studio is quite warm and there was dry paint below it which speeds things up. Oh yeah, I also threw a little flake white in there too.

I do sometimes use a soft brush for glazes, but I am as likely to use a paper towel or the side of my hand or even a squirming gerbil.

I am not doing delicate veils of transparent perfection, as my sky and indeed the whole landscape is brushy so I can get away with, and in fact want, a far less seamless look. I also will scumble into a dried sky and pound on it any other way to get it to do what I want.I am not coloring a careful underpainting or I would have to be much more deliberate, I am just "tuning" an opaque existing passage.

Steve Whitney said...

I have just begun reading your blog from the beginning. Great stuff! I have already sent a link to my students (yes, I teach oil and subscribe to nearly all the practices you describe). Love your discussion of skies, where I learned a new technique that I will try soon (putting the white in first). I have always included reds and yellows in my skies, but not the way you suggest, which sounds like a great idea. Anyway, I tell my students that "the sky is free," meaning that no one cares whether the sky you paint is the one that was actually there, and they wouldn't know the difference even if they did! This leaves the painter free to design the sky, as you have shown, to complement the rest of the painting.