The Ultimate Guide to Painting the Sky

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The sky is a challenging and dynamic subject. This guide will provide you with guidance on how to paint it. I’ll cover:

Ferdinand du Puigaudeau, Sailboats at Sunset
Ferdinand du Puigaudeau, Sailboats at Sunset

Shape and Form

The sky is transient and fleeting by nature, but that doesn’t mean you should depart from all ideas of structure, shape, and form when painting it. If anything, these concepts are even more essential as they allow you to make sense of the sky and its complex detail.

Let’s break the sky down into its most common parts: clouds and ambient space.

Clouds are tricky in that they come in an ever-changing array of shape, form, color, and detail. Thinking about them in terms of shape and form gives you a simple and consistent way to approach them.

The following are some questions that will help you see the clouds in terms of their structure. I’ll use my reference photo below to demonstrate the ideas.

Cloud Photo (3)
  • What do the clouds look like in terms of simple shapes? Make sure you don’t get caught up in the tiny details. This is not about perfect drawing; think big and simple. This is particularly important at the start of the painting when you are sketching and exploring the composition.
Cloud Drawing Structure (3)
  • Where does the light turn to shadow? This is the terminator line. This is important for conveying form and making sure your lights and darks are distinct. Keep in mind, the terminator line will vary in terms of clarity based on the form and light.
Cloud Drawing Structure (4)
  • What is the hardest edge? It will probably be around the highlights or areas of sharp contrast. Hard edges convey clarity and draw attention, so it’s important to get them right.
Cloud Drawing Structure (2)
  • What are the major contours? Think about how the form is positioned in space. Use your brush to follow the form up, over, and around. Look for areas where the form is pinching or stretching. If you need help with this, watch any drawing videos by Glenn Vilppu or Steve Huston. They are masters of exploring and communicating structure and form.
Cloud Drawing Structure (1)

The rest of the sky will be made up of ambient space. These areas lack any sense of form by nature, so it’s best to think about them as flat shapes. Think about them and the clouds as puzzle pieces that slot together.

Cloud Drawing Structure (5) 500W

At the start, it will be difficult and uncomfortable to see the clouds in terms of their structure. But once you get the hang of it, it will make the sky much easier to understand and paint. You’ll see the sky as a set of building blocks rather than an incomprehensible array of “noise”. Doing this will also reveal weaknesses or opportunities in composition. For example, too many clouds on one side of the painting may be causing an imbalance. Or perhaps there’s too much ambient space. Or perhaps there’s an opportunity to arrange the clouds in a way that leads the viewer through the rest of the painting.

Color and Light

Color is perhaps the most important and challenging aspect of painting the sky. Get the colors right, and the sky will glow and shine like light itself. Get them wrong, and there’s no saving the painting.

The nature of the light is the primary factor in determining the sky’s colors. Nature being the light’s strength, temperature, and concentration.

Let’s run through some of the different light scenarios you’ll face.

Under the warm, midday sun, the light is strong and direct. This means sharp contrast, bright highlights, and deep shadows. The lights will be warm relative to the shadows. You’ll also be dealing with two primary light sources: direct sunlight and ambient light from the blue sky. I find this exaggerates the warm light, cool shadow relationships.

Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne
Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne

On a cloudy, overcast day, the light is indirect and diffused. This means soft contrast and weak color saturation.

Isaac Levitan, The Lake, Gray Day, 1895
Isaac Levitan, The Lake, Gray Day, 1895

At sunrise or sunset, the light is strong, low-set, and warm. That means warm and brilliant lights against dark and relatively cool shadows.

Thomas Moran, The Golden Hour, 1875
Thomas Moran, The Golden Hour, 1875
Arkhip Ivanovich-Kuindzhi, Red Sunset on the Dnieper, 1905–8
Arkhip Ivanovich-Kuindzhi, Red Sunset on the Dnieper, 1905–8

At twilight or blue hour, the light is soft and cool. This is when all those wonderful pastel colors come out to play.

Isaac Levitan, Twilight, Stack, 1899
Isaac Levitan, Twilight, Stack, 1899
Clara Southern, Evensong, 1900-14
Clara Southern, Evensong, 1900-14

If your colors look off, it’s likely because they don’t make sense in the context of the light. For example, saturated blue would look out of place under a warm light. In fact, the color blue cannot exist under yellow light. You can test it for yourself. Place a blue object under yellow light and it will appear black. That’s why color theory is so important. It helps you avoid using colors that simply would not make sense in your painting.

Within the bounds of your colors making sense, you’re free to exaggerate or restrain certain colors in favor of your ideas. You might choose to push the color saturation, as John Grimshaw did with the brilliant yellows in Autumn Morning.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Morning
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Morning

Or you might push the drama by making the lights brighter and the darks deeper and blacker. See Night on the Black Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky or any of the work by Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Night on the Black Sea, 1879
Ivan Aivazovsky, Night on the Black Sea, 1879

Or you might paint the sky in a high key, making all the colors lighter. Joseph Turner did this with many of his vast landscapes, particularly his watercolors. Keep in mind, you must always pay attention to the relationships between the colors and parts of your painting. If you make the sky lighter, you should consider making the other areas lighter as well to retain the relationships.

Joseph Turner, Fluelen, Morning (Looking Towards the Lake), 1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fluelen, Morning (Looking Towards the Lake), 1845

Movement

One of the key challenges of painting is conveying movement on a flat, still surface. Of course, we cannot make our paint physically move on the canvas, but we can create a fairly convincing illusion of movement through the clever use of brushwork and color.

Vincent van Gogh painted some of the best and most recognized examples of capturing a sky’s movement. Below is The Starry Night. Look how his strokes twist and swirl and take you on a visual journey around the painting.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Here’s another example of capturing dramatic movement in the sky: Marine View With Storm Clouds by John Constable. Notice the long, sweeping strokes to suggest rain, wind, and light and how this contrasts against the relatively still and calm areas.

John Constable, Marine View with Storm Clouds (Rain over the Sea), 1827
John Constable, Marine View With Storm Clouds (Rain Over the Sea), 1827

You should be thinking about movement even when the weather is still and calm. The sky is always moving and you should paint it as such. In Café Terrace at Night, van Gogh used a tiling technique to convey the still night sky. It’s less active than but still full of life.

Vincent Van Gogh, Café Terrace at Night, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh, Café Terrace at Night, 1888

Below are some specific techniques you can use to convey movement:

  • Use directional brushwork to convey broad movements and to lead the viewer through the sky and the rest of the painting. Pay attention to where the focal point and other key areas are in your painting so you can direct the viewer there.
  • Broken color is particularly effective for adding interest to calm and still skies. See Lilla Cabot Perry’s View of Mount Fuji.
Lilla Cabot Perry, View of Mount Fuji
Lilla Cabot Perry, View of Mount Fuji
  • Can you arrange the clouds in a way that they lead the viewer through your painting?
  • Vary your techniques for complex and dramatic skies. Turner’s work is a great example. In a single painting, he would use scumbling, thin color washes, energetic strokes, thick dabs, and intricate detailing. The end result is a sky that’s full of life and movement.
Joseph Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, London, 1834
J.M.W. Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, London, 1834

(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)

Role of the Sky

The sky should not be considered in isolation, but rather in relation to its role in the painting. Is the sky part of the background or is it the focal point? This will influence how you go about painting it.

A feature sky will command attention. You might use sharp edges and clarity, brighter colors, and striking contrast. You might use thicker paint to reiterate the lights and energetic brushwork to convey life and movement.

Thomas Cole, Clouds, 1838
Thomas Cole, Clouds, 1838

A background sky will play more of a complementary role. Its job is to make the rest of the painting sing. That means you might restrain the colors, use softer edges, and push the ambience.

Jane Sutherland, To the Dandenongs, 1888
Jane Sutherland, To the Dandenongs, 1888

Sometimes, the sky will play a seemingly minor but essential role. In Isaac Levitan’s Landscape With Ferns, the sky represents only a tiny portion of the painting, yet it’s essential for breaking up the dense trees, adding depth, providing context, and acting as a point of contrast for the surrounding dark colors.

Isaac Levitan, Landscape With Ferns, 1894
Isaac Levitan, Landscape With Ferns, 1894

Brushwork and Technique

I cannot provide you with specific guidance on what brushwork and techniques to use as it varies based on the nature of the sky and its role in your painting. But I can give you some general pointers:

  • Consider using thick paint for the lights and thin paint for the shadows.
  • Use your brush to follow the broad movements of the sky and the forms of any clouds.
Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees Under a Yellow Sky, and the November Sun, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees Under a Yellow Sky, and the November Sun, 1889
  • If you find yourself getting caught up in the tiny details, use larger brushes. This will force you to be more economical with your strokes.
  • Use high-quality brushes and paints. It makes a difference.
  • If working in acrylics or oils, save your brightest highlights until last. If working in watercolors, you will typically start with your highlights (the blank paper) and end with your darks.
  • Filbert brushes are effective for capturing the softness of the sky. Flat brushes allow you to paint with more rigidity and structure. Round brushes are versatile but particularly effective for linework and detailing.

Different Mediums

Your chosen medium will influence the way you paint and set the limitations of your work. It’s important that you understand these limitations. There’s no point in painting in watercolors if you want to use thick, impasto strokes and luscious colors.

Oils are thick, textured, and versatile. They are my preferred medium.

Strengths for painting the sky: Vast range of techniques to capture the sky’s complexity; thick strokes for highlights; thin washes for ambient spaces.

Weaknesses for painting the sky: Can be challenging to work wet on wet, with the colors mixing on the canvas.

Thomas Cole, Clouds, 1838
Thomas Cole, Clouds, 1838

Acrylics are beginner-friendly. I started with them as a child before moving over to oils. They are similar to oils but less versatile in that you cannot easily work wet on wet or build up layers of translucent color. The fast drying time can also be frustrating to deal with.

Strengths for painting the sky: Can work with thick paint or thin washes; the fast drying time means you can quickly build up layer upon layer of scumbled color.

Weaknesses for painting the sky: Limited range of techniques.

Dan Scott, Childhood Painting (16)
Dan Scott, Childhood Painting

Watercolors are delicate and versatile. They are simple to pick up but incredibly difficult to master.

Strengths for painting the sky: Vast range of techniques to capture the sky’s complexity; thin washes for ambient spaces and still skies; intricate detailing.

Weaknesses for painting the sky: Weak colors compared to oils; prone to unrecoverable mistakes; difficult to master.

Edward Theodor Compton, Ödenwinklkees with the Johannisberg, 1902
Edward Theodor Compton, Ödenwinklkees with the Johannisberg, 1902

Those are the main mediums, but you could also use gouache, which is similar to watercolors, or water-mixable oils, which are easier on the senses compared to traditional oils.

Vincent van Gogh, Oise at Auvers, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Oise at Auvers, 1890

Key Takeaways

  • Seeing the sky in terms of structure, shape, and form allows you to make sense of all the detail and “noise”. It gives you a simple and consistent way to approach a dynamic and ever-changing subject.
  • Get the colors right, and the sky will glow and shine like light itself. Get them wrong, and there’s no saving the painting.
  • Most of your color questions can be answered by understanding the light. What is the temperature of the light? How strong and concentrated is it? Where is it coming from? Are there any indirect light sources?
  • Within the bounds of your colors making sense, you’re free to exaggerate or restrain certain colors in favor of your ideas.
  • You can create a fairly convincing illusion of movement through the clever use of brushwork and color.
  • The sky should not be considered in isolation, but rather in relation to its role in the painting. Is the sky part of the background or is it the focal point? What is its purpose?
  • Your chosen medium will set the limitations within which you must work. Make sure you understand these limitations.
Anton Mauve, Winter Landscape
Anton Mauve, Winter Landscape

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott
Draw Paint Academy

61 comments on “The Ultimate Guide to Painting the Sky”

  1. Thanks again for your wonderful painting advice! I’m going to implement it today and am very excited to see how it all comes together. Have a great 4th of July.

    Reply
  2. This information is extraordinarily helpful. I am so grateful because it inspires me to paint and try new things! Thank you!!!

    Reply
  3. Thank you for a wonderful wealth of information! It was broken down in such a way that was extremely helpful! I am starting a new piece today and will use my notes about light and apply the tips on thicker paints for brights and thinner for shadows!

    Reply
  4. Good stuff…thought provoking and educational, loved your blue is black in yellow light – gave me an aha moment…thank you

    Reply
  5. Dan,
    Wonderful “Dan Scott Perspectives” on the the art of art. Your explanations, diagrams and utilization of Work of selected Masters opens vistas to style techniques. Thank you!
    Cheers!

    Reply
  6. What an amazing diversity of skies! They have always held fascination and , of course challenges, ever-changing and often frustration. Your selection and know-how are really valuable to people like me who struggle to get it ‘just right’. Thank you so much Dan.

    Reply
  7. Your words sing throughout this article! I especially like the illustrations perfectly interspersed throughout, making very interesting and understandable content. Thank you Dan for your inspiration!

    Reply
  8. Dry helpful, thank you. I especially appreciate the notion of defining the contours.
    Love your chosen expanses too. Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Wonderful post! I have always had trouble with painting the sky. Tried different techniques from different artists and different media, but I was never satisfied with the end product. This is the first time anyone had talked about using the different elements. Makes sense! Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Thank you for the great information. Your thoughts are helpful and makes artistic sense. Your examples are clear and well illustrate your thoughts. A wonderful addition to my “lesson” file. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Thanks Dan,
    Love and appreciate this lesson. Only had time to read the form and shape before I got pulled away. Later I was on Facebook, started analyzing a photo of clouds, immediately went back to your article to finish it. Such great information on painting skies. Anne

    Reply
  12. Thank you Dan! Very useful advises, helpful thoughts, informative talking – it’s all you. I will read it over again and again when ready to paint.

    Reply
  13. Your email about painting skies was very timely as I’ve just started to block out a picture of a water mill with loads of sky and reflections in the millpond. Getting the light right is going to be a big challenge for me.

    Reply
  14. Mi gratitud por los útiles, interesantes y hermosos contenidos que nos proporciona usted en cada ocasión.

    Que esté usted siempre bien, feliz y en paz.

    Reply
  15. Very thorough lesson, Dan. As a beginner, I am grateful to learn how to respect the complexity, diversity and beauty of the sky and see how they apply to art. Wonderful descriptions, cautions and examples.

    Reply
  16. The lesson has a lot of information and very thoughtful. You make it look so easy. I truly enjoy reading your post’s.

    Reply
  17. Hello Dan,
    This particular lesson is quite excellent. I so appreciate you taking the time to select these wonderful reference images and write an excellent piece. I take with me a ton of knowledge from this and I owe you a ton of thanks.

    Cheers!
    Gina in NC

    Reply
  18. Thank you so much for this very detailed information. There is enough here to keep me busy for a very long time! I am going to keep this nearby and refer to it often! I really appreciate how clearly you explain everything and break down the information into categories- making it easier for us to learn! I really enjoy Learning from you and appreciate the effort that you put into everything you do!!

    Reply

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