5 Key Factors for Painting Skies and Clouds

Think of Turner’s skies or even Monet’s — they are multifaceted and carry the hum of several colors. The sky is rarely blue — or rarely just blue (except for a few lucky places in the world).

As many of us transition to landscape painting during the summer season, we can sometimes make assumptions and take certain things for granted like the color of skies or clouds. Perhaps this is because we may see our subjects primarily in photographs, or maybe because habits form over the winter and we forget what a variety of color lives in the landscape.

Fishermen at Sea by J. M. W. Turner | 5 Factors of Painting Successful Skies
Fishermen at Sea by J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas

A Landscape Artist Knows How Important These “Secrets” for Skies and Clouds Are!

When it comes time for me to paint with an aerial perspective, I think of Georges Seurat’s paintings. This may be an extreme example, but for me his work demonstrates an awareness of the prevalence of color, especially in the sky.

The Seine at La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat | 5 Factors of Painting Successful Skies
The Seine at La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, oil on canvas

Thinking of his pointillist dots helps me remember that color is everywhere. In the spirit of this, I pulled together a few tips on painting the sky to help stave off the “blue syndrome.”

1. Build up the sky with various tints and tones, and not just blue ones.

Really look at the sky and see what colors are there. A rainy day can often have gray, green and even yellow tinges to it. A sunset is often much darker than I usually paint it the first time, and can contain all kinds of deep reds, pinks, yellows and purples.

The Frankenkirche, Dresden by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, oil painting | Painting Skies - An Artist's Guide
The Frankenkirche, Dresden by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, oil painting.
3.19.98, 6.10 p.m. by Kevin Macpherson, oil painting, 6 x 8.
3.19.98, 6.10 p.m. by Kevin Macpherson, oil painting, 6 x 8.

2. Don’t paint the brightness of the sky alone.

Paint the shadows in it to give a sense of space and depth. The more moisture in the air, the more reflections — and, as a result, the more color — you will find.

Even when the sky is clear there is a sense of depth perception to our field of vision. In every case, question how that occurs and try to accentuate it.

3. Clouds reflect the light in the sky.

Even on a picture perfect day, when clouds look white and the sky looks blue, don’t reach for blue and white alone. They can make a painting look flat and clichéd. Experiment with the colors you perceive in reflections and the light to add depth and greater realism.

Study for Pacifica Coast by Joseph Mendez, 2007, oil painting, 12 x 16.
Study for Pacifica Coast by Joseph Mendez, 2007, oil painting, 12 x 16.

4. Add texture to the painting surface.

Texture can give an entirely different sense of atmosphere than you can get by manipulating paint color. Experiment with thick and thin strokes of paint and new mediums for surprising results.

5. The sky tends to lighten toward the horizon.

Be mindful of this as you are painting because this alone can help create a more convincing landscape painting.

Regatta at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet | 5 Factors of Painting Successful Skies
Regatta at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet, oil on canvas

How Do You Paint Your Skies?

I want to hear your tips for painting the sky too, so please share them with me — along with any other techniques you have for creating great landscape paintings in the studio — by leaving a comment below.

And, for more great instruction on creating compelling landscape paintings, check out the book, Landscape Painting Essentials by Johannes Vloothuis. The accomplished artist and instructor shares his expert landscape painting techniques in oil, pastel, watercolor AND acrylic. Enjoy!

 

5 thoughts on “5 Key Factors for Painting Skies and Clouds

  1. Frosty Rankin says:

    Hey Courtney,
    I agree that the skies are never completely blue ! I never use any color straight out of the tube! they are ALL to intense for a natural color! I do like to use a intense blue sky in winter scenes however! I makes a crisp cold morning scene even colder! Check out what I mean at: http://www.frostyartwork.com! So Why can we talk to Ya on Facebook? Are Ya like too busy or something? HA! Friend Gaylen Rankin and you’ll find a great bit of fun, with our artists groups from everywhere!

  2. cooper2 says:

    Courtney,

    I love the title of this post!

    Down in the article a ways you mentioned when the nice weather squeals to a halt, (yes, Iowa) artists find themselves painting from photographs.

    Photographs are terribly good at disguising the reality of a sky, but a painter can always remove the “what we know factor” by working from black and white photographs. It’s kind of liberating. Hey, even a yellow sky is possible.

    Later, Cooper

  3. Don Barnes says:

    It’s true. The skies in the west often fade from ultramarine at the zenith to cerrulean at mid-sky, then to shades of pink, orange, yellow, gray or even green toward the horizon. In the morning, they also tend to be absolutely empty, which makes them beautiful in real life, but boring in a painting. To combat this, I often add touches of pink into the sky, or make up some clouds. It’s rare that an empty blue sky can work for me.

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