Field Notes

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
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!


hurley skies 4 comp 3

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.


hurley skies 4  comp 1

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.