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How to Paint Skies in Any Medium

Learn how four artists paint skies in their respective mediums. Plus, a roundup of our best articles on painting the ever-changing skies above us.

Lisa Grossman, Unseen Horizon (acrylic on canvas, 90×117)

Discover how four artists — Donna Levinstone, James Toogood, Ryan S. Brown, and Lisa Grossman — paint skies in pastel, watercolor, acrylic, and oil. Then read on for our roundup of articles to help you master skies, whether sunny, cloudy, or stormy.

Donna Levinstone: Pastel

Donna Levinstone, Bay Ripple (pastel, 17×14)

A 24-hour art gallery, that’s what the sky is for me; the sky inspires a feeling of hope and limitless possibilities. In my work, what’s most important is the creation of light and atmosphere. I place a lot of emphasis on the formation and illumination of clouds. In order to build up the light while painting clouds, I use a tissue to wipe down the pastel, which prepares the surface so I can add highlights. I further illuminate the sky by darkening the top of my drawing and creating light along the horizon line.

In all my pastels, I explore the contrast between the ethereal, ever-changing sky and the solid foreground. In my Day Into Night series of triptychs, the central panel is a solid color because the concept is the depiction of the changes in the sky as day turns into night.

Before I start any drawing, I measure a border around the image using 3M Scotch Magic #811 removable tape. My final step is to cover my drawings with a sheet of glassine; I then “iron” the picture with my hands, in order to eliminate excess pastel. Finally I put a clean piece of glassine on my drawing. My works suggest a landscape but do not depict a particular place. They are landscapes of the soul.

Donna Levinstone, Day Into Night X (pastel, 18×36)

Donna Levinstone’s Toolkit

  • PASTELS: Diane Townsend (handmade); Schmincke (soft); Spectrum (soft); Prismacolor NuPastels (hard)
  • PAPER: Stonehenge white
  • OTHER: WInsor & Newton ArtGuard barrier cream to protect hands, tissue paper, paper towels, sheets of glassine

James Toogood: Watercolor

James Toogood, The Cornish Coast (watercolor, 13×20)

The sky is an integral design element, not simply a background curtain hanging behind a landscape. Observing the sky, we’re actually looking deep into space. Most people realize that the sky looks lighter near the horizon, where we also see a change in color, often yellow or pink. Many people don’t notice, however, that there’s often a change in value even higher in the sky, depending on the direction of the sun. Sensitivity to these elements can give even a cloudless sky a more dynamic design.

Clouds are simply the result of water droplets that form in the sky. The more you understand clouds, the easier it is to paint them with authority. Cumulus clouds have a discernable architecture: a top, sides and bottom. Often somewhat elongated, they’re typically puffier at the top and flatter at the bottom. Their puffy lobes can be affected by wind.

They can seem connected or separate from one another, opaque or translucent — often they’re both. This opacity causes cast shadows on the parts of the clouds that turn away from the light source, as well as shadows on adjacent clouds.

I work in transparent watercolor on paper and use no white when I paint clouds.

James Toogood, Blizzard on Fifth Avenue (watercolor, 30×22)

James Toogood’s Toolkit

  • PENCIL: F grade for the initial drawing
  • PAPER: Arches 140- or 300-lb cold-pressed
  • WATERCOLORS: Sennelier; Winsor & Newton raw umber (snow painting); M. Graham cerulean blue, cobalt blue, Prussian blue (snow painting), dioxazine violet

Ryan S. Brown: Oils

Ryan S. Brown, Heavenly Light (oil, 8×16)

The dramatic focus, a subtle backdrop or the balancing compositional element — a sky can play different roles in a painting. We control the influence the sky will have through brushwork, color, value and complexity.

Perhaps most important is the key (the dominant tone or value) of the sky. All other elements in the painting will be keyed off the value of the sky. Thus, an important first decision is to determine the painting’s key: high (predominately light values) or low (predominately dark values). It’s important also to be very careful in the design of the sky, not necessarily copying what we see.

I work en plein air (Payson Lake, Utah) and in the studio—from life, from studies, from photos and from my imagination (Heavenly Light).

Ryan S. Brown, Payson Lake, Utah (oil, 12×16)

Ryan S. Brown’s Toolkit

  • BRUSHES: Trekell bristle and red sable brushes; Winsor & Newton Artisan synthetic brushes; Langnickel 5590 brushes
  • OILS: Old Holland Cremnitz white, vermilion, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue deep; Gamblin titanium white, cadmium yellow light, alizarin crimson permanent, viridian, sap green, asphaltum, ivory black; Natural Pigments yellow ochre
  • MEDIUMS: Maroger medium; linseed oil; Natural Pigments Oleoresgel, Velázquez medium and Venetian medium
  • VARNISH: Studio Products copal retouch varnish

Lisa Grossman: Acrylics

Lisa Grossman, River Clouds (acrylic on canvas, 68×42)

I’m interested in bizarre cloud formations and patterns of lines, dots and dashes that morph and shift into spectacles that are sometimes hard to believe. I wanted to fill large canvases with complicated patterns that I’d never have time to work out on location. River Clouds, for example, was created from photos I took of an amazing winter sky from a bridge over the Kansas River. Viewing my finished painting, I was enthralled with the way the clouds seemed to mimic the river currents; I could almost imagine looking up at the underbellies of fish in the river — an M.C. Escher effect.

Skies that precede incoming weather are most exciting to me, especially here in Kansas, where you can watch approaching fronts for hundreds of miles. For this series of acrylics, I began with reference photos of unusual cloud formations, projected onto canvas. I then rapidly roughed in the image with loose washes of bluish gray acrylic. Next I worked back and forth with the light and dark areas with several colors I’d premixed to maintain consistency. Adding matte medium, I painted rather thinly in layers, alternately painting hard edges and glazing over — softening and tinting — selected areas.

Though this work is fairly abstract, I want it to be believable, so you can feel the curving arc of the atmosphere and sense the distance and movement and light.

Lisa Grossman, Unseen Horizon (acrylic on canvas, 90×117)

Lisa Grossman’s Toolkit

  • SURFACE: cotton duck canvas stretched over Best heavy-duty stretchers, primed with four coats of Utrecht artist’s gesso, lightly sanded between coats, and finally tinted with a thin wash of acrylic, usually a warm golden or rusty color to knock back the bright white
  • TOOLS: Canon PowerShot A570 IS digital camera; ArtOGraph Super Prism projector
  • ACRYLICS: Liquitex and Utrecht
  • MEDIUM: Liquitex matte medium
  • BRUSHES: medium to large hog bristle brushes; 11⁄2 to 2-inch house-painting brushes

More Expert Tips on How to Paint Skies

Whether they’re blue, gray, or the colors of the sunset, skies enchant and challenge artists working in every painting medium. You’ll find expert guidance and inspiration in the articles below.


Meet the Artists

DONNA LEVINSTONE’s work is in the collections of the Library of Congress, Pfizer Inc., Museum of the City of New York and many others. She lives in New York City. To see more of her work, visit donnalevinstone.com.

JAMES TOOGOOD teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. His work has been the subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions with galleries including Rosenfeld Gallery in Philadelphia, Windjammer Gallery and Desmond Fountain Gallery, both in Hamilton, Bermuda. His work has appeared in museum solo exhibitions at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton, Bermuda, and Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. Learn more at pafa.org/staff/james-toogood.

RYAN S. BROWN studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, where he won Best Painting of the Year and the President’s Awards. In 2008 he opened the Center for Academic Study & Naturalist Painting (CAS). His work can be seen at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia and at Astoria Fine Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. See more at ryansbrown.com.

LISA GROSSMAN worked as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards before she discovered the tallgrass prairies and skies of east-central Kansas and left Hallmark in 1995 to paint full time. Her work is represented by the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri; the Strecker-Nelson Gallery in Manhattan, Kansas, and the Marty Walker Gallery in Dallas, Texas. See more at lisagrossmanart.com.


A version of this article originally appeared in Artists Magazine.

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