When to Paint the Sky

 

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The Golden Valley–Sir Alfred East

“It is much easier to paint a sky to suit a landscape than a landscape to suit a sky.”

Sir Alfred East, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour (1915).

When should you paint the sky? Should it be the first thing you paint when you begin a landscape painting? The last? All at once? Incrementally?

Some of you may have heard the oft repeated advice to paint the sky first. The argument for this approach goes: The sky sets the key for the landscape , the value range for the landscape, the mood of your  picture, and the light condition you wish to depict. And, painting back to front, helps with edges too. All  of these things are true. But, there are also good reasons not to!

Here is why. Most beginners and many intermediate painters will start out by keying their sky too dark.  The sky is generally the lightest plane in the landscape and on a typical sunny day its value might range from 9 to 7.5 or 8. Very often, without any other value to compare it to on the canvas, students will mix a value range which is one or even two to three value steps darker than what it should be!  As a result, every other value in the landscape gets pushed toward the darker side of the value scale. The result is usually a dark painting, or one where the values are all in the middle of the range as the student struggles to keep things from getting too dark.

It is much easier to judge the value of your sky once you have something to compare it to. Ideally, you will use a value scale to mix your color and make sure it is in the correct range. But, you also want to compare it to other values. So, laying in a range of values, including your lightest light and your darks will help you judge the correct value for your sky.

Secondly, As Sir Alfred East notes, one of the challenges in landscape painting is to make the sky and the landscape work together harmoniously. There are many more “moving parts” – value changes, temperature shifts, drawing issues, color harmony to solve in the landscape and they need to be worked out to some degree before you can effectively “marry” the sky and the landscape.

However, painting back to front does have real advantages and being aware of and careful about your sky values can solve some of the problems I have outlined above.

This is why that I recommend students lay in an initial thin layer of opaque pigment at a value of about 9, after completing the initial underpainting or lay in of their composition. Think of this as a “placeholder” value and color which will help you keep your painting in the correct key. Then, as you develop your painting, and have established the darkest and lightest tones of the value range you intend to use, you can go back and finish your sky.

You can read more about Sir Alfred East and his book in this post.

P. S. Our annual online class The Painted Sky starts Friday, August 2nd! Learn to paint big atmospheric skies and clouds that float!  Registration and information is here. Join us!

Seago Skies

Edward Seago (1910-1974) was a British landscape painter. He is one of the best known and widely collected British artists of the 20th century. He enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime including royal patronage by several members of the Royal Family, including the the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinborough and Prince Charles.  Seago painted all sorts of subjects, but is perhaps best known for his paintings of boats, skies and the countryside around his home in Norwich. He painted in watercolor and oil.

Edward Seago
Edward Seago

 

Although Seago was given some direction by Sir Alfred Munnings he was essentially a self taught artist. He studied the works of Constable particularly as well as other masters.

Here are some beautiful Seago skies. Notice how Seago carefully orchestrated his skies, playing the lights and darks against each other. Enjoy!

 

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P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.

Sir Alfred East- Advice on Painting Skies

Sir Alfred Edward East (1844- 1913), was a British landscape painter whose work was influenced by the French Barbizon painters as well as the rich tradition of British landscape painting in the 19th century transmitted by the twin giants of the genre, Constable and Turner. Sir Alfred had a successful career, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and was given a knighthood by King Edward VII. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for his book The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour which was published in 1906.

Sir Alfred East
Sir Alfred East
Sir Alfred East
Sir Alfred East

The book contains much of the conventional wisdom on landscape painting of the time, but is noteworthy in its emphasis on drawing, how to approach Nature, sketching and painting from Nature, and composition. The chapter on painting skies is particularly interesting, offering the beginning landscape painter sage advice delivered in a mixture of pithy directives and more lengthy (occasionally turgid) prose of the late 19th century.  It is well worth reading. Here are a few of the best bits!

Sir Alfred East
Sir Alfred East

In his chapter on skies, East advises that “if you make a practice of painting a sky every morning with the regularity that you take your bath, you will find at the end of six months that you know something of its variations.” He suggests that thirty minutes is a sufficient amount of time, and that it should be done immediately before breakfast so that it doesn’t interfere with your “ordinary work”.

“But of all things avoid a flat sky. There is nothing so miserable in landscape painting as a mere piece of flat blue.”

“Don’t be afraid of rubbing the foliage into the sky, and the the sky into the foliage at you first painting. You will have ample opportunity of getting the character of the edge… at a later stage.”

“it is much easier to paint a sky to suit a landscape than a landscape to suit a sky.”

A Kindle version of the book is available through Amazon.

P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.

Sky Values- The Key to Big Atmospheric Skies!

One of the most important ingredients for painting big atmospheric skies is getting the values right. We know that generally speaking the sky will have the lightest values in the landscape because it is the source of light (think Carlson’s Theory of Angles- if you don’t know about that you should!). The value of a typical sunlit sky will grade from light to dark from the horizon to its zenith. But it is helpful to assign an actual value to these gradations so we can place them in proper context within the entire landscape . If you key your sky too dark, it will look leaden and lower the value of your entire painting. First, here is the Munsell value scale, running from 10 to 0, light to dark. All images can be clicked for a larger view.

 

munsell_value_scale

 

So, remembering that the sky is a vault (right?) here is what that might look like, assigning values to the sky. You will note that there is just a slightly darker value that occurs right at the horizon. Often this is not visible because objects (buildings, mountains etc) are in the way. But, when it is visible, making this value adjustment is crucial.

Vault of the Sky 2The values in the sky also grade light to darker from the source of the light to the opposite side of the sky. So, near the sun, values will be lighter and get progressively darker farther away. Here is what that might look like.

Zenith 4So, go outside and look up! Observe these gradations and how they look in different parts of the sky. The values might be somewhat different from what is shown here depending on weather conditions.  For example, on an overcast day, the values will actually be lighter than they are on a sunlit day!

Often we may be painting a smaller part of the sky or a lower part of the sky than would include the whole range of gradations. But here is where some artistic license can be taken. Showing both vertical and horizontal gradations, even if not the entire range, will help make your skies look big and atmospheric.

 

Designing a Sky

Skies are just like other elements of the landscape- as artists we need to impose our own idea of design on the raw materials Nature provides.  In this post we’ll focus on how weight, balance, asymmetry, movement, and edges can help us design our skies (and anything else for that matter).

This painting is by Wilson Hurley ( 1924-2008 ), an iconic painter of big western skies.  I picked this image because it not only has a big cloud right in the middle but, it is also almost square, which tends to force the eye to the middle. So Hurley set himself a pretty interesting task when he chose this cloud to paint in this format.

Summer Thunderstorm 1980 40" x 44"
Summer Thunderstorm
1980
40″ x 44″

Hurley has used the idea of counterchange-that is, playing darker and lighter values against each other- to effectively design this piece. The light ground plane contrasts with the darker sky, which is then used as a foil for the lighter cloud. But, let’s look a bit deeper to see how he makes that big cloud in the center thing work so well.

In the next image we can see that although the cloud is pretty much in the center of the canvas, he has weighted the image to the left by using that bank of clouds as an anchor (which also helps to give dimension to the cloud by pushing the lit up portion forward). The bank on the bottom right has much softer edges and recedes more into the sky so its not as prominent, which of course makes the areas to the left more so. Also, the lit up portion, which comes forward and has more visual weight, is also on the left. The lightest light and the crispest edges are all in this area as well. While we are on the topic of edges, look at the variety of them in this piece!

 

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Here we can see that even though we have a very centered composition with stable horizontal lines throughout, a diagonal has been established which helps create movement. The design of the ground plane is part of this movement and helps to hold the earth and sky together visually.

 

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All of these are compositional devices which can be used in designing skies of all types, and landscapes in general.

The Vault of the Sky

What shape is the sky? As landscape painters we must remember that the sky is not a flat plane in the distance, but a vault which arches up toward and over the viewer’s head.

Illustration from Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting
Illustration from Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

 

The fact that we are depicting a vault rather than a flat plane affects the perspective we see in the clouds, the colors and values in various parts of the sky and the amount and quality of light.

But, it should also affect the way we depict it in paint. Specifically, the direction of our brushstrokes! When we want to depict other shapes or forms we often think in terms of the direction of brushstrokes. For example, we might use a horizontal stroke to help define the volume and girth of a tree trunk, or a short curved stroke to suggest the shape of leaves and foliage. So, when we paint the sky, we should use vertical strokes to help show that it is a vault, arching up and over the head of the viewer. Using vertical strokes will instantaneously add a sense of “bigness” to your skies. Even a cloud filled sky can benefit from some well placed vertical stokes. So, give those vertical strokes a try!

Gone Skying

 

John Constable Cloud Study

“I have done a good deal of skying, for I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that among the rest.”

John Constable, October 1821

 

August is for skying at The Landscape Atelier! Our annual Skies class is well underway and this August we have lots of big summer skies to keep us occupied.  As we launch this blog our next few posts will touch on just a few of the things we are learning about drawing and painting skies.

As many of my students know, John Constable, the great 19th century English landscape painter, is a major source of inspiration to me. Constable was an innovator in the art of landscape in a number of ways, including his study of skies. He was one of the first artists to make plein air sketching part of his regular working process. During the summer months, he would leave his studio in London and roam the Suffolk countryside. He had a particular interest in skies and today his on the spot sketches (annotated on the back with date, time and weather conditions) are among his most compelling works. He used these sketches to make further studies in the studio and in the development of his larger studio works, including the famous “six footers”.

 

Constable Cloud Studies-Intro-Painted Sky

For those of you who might want to know more about Constable and his skying, I highly recommend the book Constable’s Clouds-Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable, published by the National Galleries of Scotland. For those who would like to know more about Constable’s use of these studies and general process in creating the six footers, Constable: The Great Landscapes, published by Tate Galleries, is a great resource.