Painting Blue Skies | Applying the Theory of Light, Part 1

Recently, while on a painting trip to sunny arid Arizona, I was asked by a student for guidance on how to handle the intensity of the blue sky—especially in a landscape enhanced by the earthen tones of the rugged desert mountains. As someone who lives in an area filled with tree-covered mountains and a moisture-laden atmosphere, it’s not an issue that I’ve often confronted. Glancing up toward the majestic Catalina Mountains that loom over Tucson, I could easily see what the student was saying. The appearance of the blue sky behind the mountain ridge viewed from this angle was vastly darker and far more intense in color saturation than most landscape scenarios. Compounding the situation was the fact that the mountains were all warm earth tones. While it was truly beautiful, attempting to accurately duplicate the scene—without some artistic license—would easily be unsettling.

As representational artists, there is one reality that we all have to embrace: a painting is a magic show. Getting it to look exactly like the scene often isn’t enough to create a successful performance. A painting is a representation of reality that triggers memory in the viewer. It can, and should, be interpreted and manipulated to best communicate the feelings of the artist.

When confronting an intense blue sky, it is important to be reminded that the color of the sky is light moving through atmosphere. Science has proven that light contains the full spectrum of color. When refracted (bent), the spectrum is revealed. Think of a rainbow. The appearance of blue in the sky is due to “Rayleigh Scattering” in which the longer color wavelengths of light (red, orange and yellow) are not affected but the shorter wavelengths of light (blue and violet) are absorbed and radiated by the atmosphere. This scattering creates the appearance of a blue sky.

When portraying the blue sky in a painting, it is paramount that the spectrum of light be inferred. There are two simple ways of doing this. First, select a dominant hue of blue and then find the two analogous hues (hues that would be immediately to its left and right on a color wheel). Make sure all three of these hues are similar in value. Instead of filling the sky in with just the one hue of blue, place marks of the three colors in close proximity to each other and allow them to interact, e.g. Blue, Blue-Green, and Blue-Violet. They all share blue in common, but also allow for a touch of yellow and red to be present. These fragmented marks will mass together in tone and value, creating a solid blue sky but they will visually pulsate, indicating the full spectrum of light.


“There is no blue without yellow and without orange.” —Vincent Van Gogh


Here you can see a selection of pastels representing fragmented tones of blue.

In next week’s blog, I’ll discuss the second technique for representing the spectrum of light in a blue sky as well as other considerations/observations.

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