Tuesday, February 10

8 Tips for Painting the Sky

Today’s Image
Big New Mexico Sky
Acrylic on canvas
(20 x 16 in, 50.6 x 40.6 cm)
Copyright 2008

If you are a plein air painter, or if you paint landscapes, seascapes, or actually any outdoor motif in which the horizon is visible, then you have to determine how to paint the sky. Today's Image is my acrylic painting of a bright, mid-day sky.

Painting skies is and should be an important part of your motif considering it can cover anywhere from next to nothing to 100 percent of your canvas (or paper). It’s important to be able to render it according to your artistic vision.

In today’s The Painting Life I’m passing along a few tips for painting skies that have helped me. First let me tell you to relax, because there is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s your creation and your sky and your vision and you can paint it anyway you like.

Second, artists don’t agree on how to do this either. I know one professional artist who said you should always paint the sky last, that is, after you’ve already painted everything else. I think he said your painting will look more realistic, but I don’t necessarily agree. He said when you paint the sky last, it does mean you have to go back and fill-in the sky around the edges of objects you’ve already painted, such as trees and branches. To me that can be difficult and a whole lot of filling-in to do. I think it also looks like what it is-- adding paint at the very end, which doesn’t look realistic to me. Painting the sky last just doesn’t work for me.

I do much better by painting the sky first. To my way of thinking, it’s the most distant thing in your picture, of course, so naturally everything else will be closer to the viewer. I tend to paint in sequence according to how far away objects are, starting with the most distant object first (the sky). Then I paint the next closest objects or area and lastly the closest objects to the viewer. In landscapes, for example, the closest thing may be the ground that’s right in front of me, which I paint last. Whether this makes artistic sense, I don’t know, but it’s logical to me and it works, so that’s how I do it.

I paint mostly with acrylics, and here are my eight tips for painting skies:

  1. As I already said, paint the sky first.

  2. One of my favorite blues for any kind of sunny, daytime sky is Amsterdam/Van Gogh Sky Blue Light; it’s a natural looking light blue that can be used right from the tube or mixed with Titanium white.

  3. Depending your geographic location and altitude, and in addition to Sky Blue Light, I find a Cerulean blue mixed with Titanium white looks more realistic for my landscapes; Cerulean blue has green in it, and somehow it look better with landscapes, which are earth tones.

  4. For seascapes, either Ultramarine or Pthalo blue mixed with Titanium white is a good choice no matter what mixture of blues, greens, browns, or grays you’re using for the water; Ultramarine or Pthalo seem to provide a more pleasing blue painted above water.

  5. For a daytime scene, the sky should be lighter at the horizon and become gradually darker at the highest point, even in broad daylight at noon.

  6. If your motif is either a sunrise or a sunset, then you have a whole variety of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples from which to choose; these should be painted brighter or more vividly (a darker value)at the horizon and become gradually less intense the higher in the sky they reach; pay attention to how they mix with blue depending on how bright the daylight is on the horizon.

  7. A night sky should look rich and velvet-y; almost never use black, Mars black, or Payne’s gray to paint a night sky; a better choice is either a Pthalo or a Prussian blue, which can be mixed with a little Payne’s gray; you can also use a Deep violet or Dioxazine purple mixed with either a Burnt Sienna or Pthalo/Prussian blue depending on the look you’re going for.

  8. Clouds, of course, play a huge part in the look and mood of your skies; however, painting clouds is a subject all by itself and will be left for another blog; suffice it to say, there is almost no limit to the whites, blues, grays, greens, yellows and/or pinks of your clouds or their type, depending on the weather.

With these eight tips, the Sky’s the Limit!


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