The sky is a challenging and dynamic subject. This guide will provide you with guidance on how to paint it. I’ll cover:
- Shape and Form
- Color and Light
- Role of the Sky
- Brushwork and Technique
- Different Mediums
- Key Takeaways
- Thanks for Reading!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
On a cloudy, overcast day, the light is indirect and diffused. This means soft contrast and weak color saturation.
At sunrise or sunset, the light is strong, low-set, and warm. That means warm and brilliant lights against dark and relatively cool shadows.
At twilight or blue hour, the light is soft and cool. This is when all those wonderful pastel colors come out to play.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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