Few landscape element carry the power of a well-painted sky. Peaceful or threatening, bold or subtle, skies set the tone, establishing the feeling that permeates all of the other components of a scene. But skies are often overlooked in the quest to paint more concrete landscape objects. This relative lack of attention sometimes gives skies an elusive, mysterious air, but the fact is that all it takes is a methodical approach to coax a sense of “skyness” onto your canvas or paper.
Louise DeMore: Describe the Moment
“I prefer to paint directly outdoors,” says Louise DeMore of Los Osos, California. “So for me, the sky is a specific place, time and shape. I try to create the illusion of three dimensions in order to satisfy a basic human understanding of the environment. For example, we perceive the sky to be dome-shaped. In order to give that appearance, the horizon should be lighter and warmer than the zenith. Also, the side nearest the sunlight should be lighter and warmer, creating a gradation from one side to the other.”
DeMore avoids working directly from photographs. Instead, she prefers to glance at them to jog her memory. “Painting directly from a photograph doesn?t allow the artist to experience a scene with all five senses,” she says.
To capture a deeper feeling, DeMore creates small color sketches en plein air with the specific objective of catching a fleeting feeling from the place that will later translate to a larger painting in the studio. “If I don?t have a good sketch, I don?t have a mood for the larger work,” she says.
Jack Hines: Perspective Rules
Observation is the key to understanding the many moods of the sky, according to Jack Hines of Big Timber, Montana. “The sky has its own kind of solidity—it?s own mass—and there are powerful forces at work there.”
Hines often uses bold color to give his skies just the right mood. “The sun colors the sky, and the sky color totally infuses the scene,” he says. “For me, the color of the sky (and its contents) is by far the most important factor in the landscape. Essentially, the color of the sky relates to the color of the light in the painting. Every element of a painting is influenced by the color of the light.”
Along with their impact on color, skies can affect the other components in a landscape in a variety of ways. “Skies aren?t always overhead,” Hines says. “They?re also reflected in virtually every water body we encounter, sometimes very, very subtly. In every rain puddle, rain-slick road and millpond we have the opportunity to explore the heavens. If you?re painting water, the sky is present by inference. And even when you create the illusion of the sky reflected in water, it still follows the same law of perspective and gradation as do the other elements in a scene.
Gil Dellinger: Seeing the Air
“Almost everything I do is directly from life,” says Gil Dellinger. “I like to spend lots of time observing my subject. Sometimes I sit an hour before beginning to paint.”
Indeed, the Stockton, California, artist says this period of observation is often the most critical part of his painting process. “Everything depends on the air,” he explains. “The atmosphere sets the tone.”
If you want to create more convincing skies, Dellinger suggests a three-pronged approach. “First, keep the clouds lighter than you think they actually are,” he says. “This is especially true when you?re re-creating the undersides of the clouds. Second, let the sky arrange itself into pleasing movements. Wait until you see the clouds as you want them. Don?t be arbitrary. Third, be conscious that the clouds are floating. That means they must seem light enough to left off the ground.”
In addition to her best-selling book The Artist?s Way, author Julia Cameron has written 14 books, six plays (including two musicals) and one feature film. Her latest books include Supplies: A Pilot?s Manual for Creative Flight and God Is No Laughing Matter (both published by Tarcher/Putnam).