Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A few pointers on painting skies

Here is a question from a reader about sky design:
Dear Stape:
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?
...................Wyatt Fissure

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery

  • 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.


Mark Heng said...

Great post, Stape. I've always found skies to be really hard to get right...

Can you give us an example of what you mean by a reddish note at the top to make the sky curve over? Do you mean shade your sky blue a little towards the indigo/violet in hue?

bvpainter said...

A really interesting article. I also admire Seago, a really great landscape artist. Did you know that he taught Prince Phillip and Prince Charles to paint.

Judy P. said...

Interesting, helpful stuff; I understand that the sky would be the lightest value in a picture, but what about that bold reflected light one sees from e.g. a tin roof? It's dramatic, so would you go all hog and highlight that, or would you still want to suppress it in comparison to the sky?

a Nantucket blog. said...

Very interesting!

Love2paint said...

Stape, you really give a ton of helpful info here. Greatly appreciate it. I am going to teach a workshop next summer in central NY and this will come in handy. Lots of cloud formations there.

Mimi said...

thank you, struggling with a sky as we speak. Will look at it again with your tips in mind.

Sue Harrell said...

Butter, eh? I'd heard mayonnaise...

Philip Koch said...

All the points Stape makes about skies are good.

I'd only like to add that the sky can also be a wonderful place to play around a little bit more with arranging abstract shapes. Of course the sky has to make sense and be believable. But to a certain extent it's also a place where you can indulge your imagination. Freed of the constraints of describing the foreground and middleground, you can soar more freely.

George Inness, the amazing later 19th century American landscape painter clearly experimented all over the place with arranging clouds and then re-arranging them. He shows us how to drive the horses at the top half of the painting too.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this , really helpful

Libby Fife said...

I liked the part about the sky being a dome. So often I think it just looks like a flat plane of blueness or potatoes or whatever.

I am sure you will laugh but my all time favorite sky is from John Rogers Cox and his Gray and Gold piece-fluffy, structured and voluminous clouds that look a little scary and super Midwestern.

Todd Bonita said...

Excellent post Stape, thanks for the recommended artist list to observe skies and clouds too. I happen to keep extra butter in my pocket so next time I'll simply slip some in my loafers. Great tip.

Robert J. Simone said...

Stape, can you expound a little on the art of "designing skies" while in the heat of battle? For me the challenge of coming up with good cloud designs lies in the fact that the reference material is constantly changing. Often times good stuff gets better.... said...

Hmmmm...a lot to digest there. But it always tastes better with butter.

Kevin Beck said...

You can learn a LOT from the English and Dutch.
A "business" question that perhaps you've addressed else where. What do you do with all the unseen/unsold work. I am coming from a place of frustration with the down turn in sales. In the past a great year was sales of 75 paintings and a slow year about 50 (from small to large works). Today maybe 15 to 20. In a normal year I will paint as many as 200 "keepers". I say keepers because every year I sell something that was painted 10 to 15 years ago, it was just waiting for the right buyer. This spring I destroyed about 100 paintings and I've got my sights trained on a 100 more. I've started working larger (36X48, 60X72) in an effort to slow down.
Thoughts? maybe I should paint left handed?

David Teter said...

Great stuff as usual, as a southern cal resident we don't always get great skies like most of the country, too many blue skies, so I had to learn to invent or design them.
Picked up some new pointers here. Sometimes I forget what I already know and get reminded coming here.

Kevin Beck,
Are you kidding? Destroying 100 paintings? I can see doing that to bad paintings... but good?

Give them away... GIVE!... as gifts... to those people or organizations that can't afford to buy original art and love your work.
Then watch the look of joy on their faces!
That alone would be worth any toil you may have poured into them. Destroying them means you wasted your time.

I have family and friends that request my art as b-day or xmas gifts... at first I felt like it was such a cop out on my part... until I saw the joy it brought them.

willek said...

Just a terrific summary of valuable advice and good practice from a man who walks the walk. .

Lucy said...

Cloud patterns can make or break the painting. In addition to playing with interesting shapes one can make arrangements of dark/light and warm/cool.

Love that Seago! I actually never heard of him before reading this blog. Shameful.

Lucy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Bachem said...

I'm a huge Seago fan as well..."discovered" him after I read that Stobart loved him as well. Good enough for Stobart is good enough for me. BTW, speaking about skies, how about Stobart?

willek said...

Alert!!! Hey, Stape Some hacker has placed a picture of my brother in law where your picture was in your opening statement.

Anonymous said...

Learned a lot... thanks!

dglenncasey said...

Kevin, you should never destroy "keepers" just because it's been a slow year (or two). If they really are that good then they will sell at some time when the buying public starts to loosen their purse strings again. Consider this your time to get a little inventory built up and put away for that time in the future when you will wish you have a few extras to hang on the walls.

ggoodrich said...

Hi Stape,

The sky is the first thing that came into my mind when we were asked to sketch when I was in grade school, glad I succeeded - that's when I fell in love with art.