UART Tip #28: “Skyscape Painting: Some Useful Tips” with Christine Camilleri

Why are clouds challenging to many artists? We know they are important because without them all we would have is an empty blue sky with no colors. Clouds are an integral part of paintings yet we are daunted by them. A cup has solidity, a sunlit house has the brightest side, the darkest, the shadow side and then some reflected light within, and a tree trunk is warm on one side, cooler shadow on the other. Why aren’t clouds following the same pattern? Actually they do.

  • Clouds are forms too: they have shadow areas, sunlit areas and they reflect the earth or water be-neath them. Not all cloud shapes are lovely; as painters we need to design them to fit our painting.
  • Clouds are convincing when they have soft edges and you see them as shapes instead of wisps. Think of their motion as you paint, get rid of ugly shapes in your reference photo and use bold gestures to depict them. The sky is usually your lightest part of the painting so keep your values close (test this on a stormy day, the land will be dark but the sky will still be the lightest). Once the shapes are down, only then put in your lightest lights to show the direction of the light. Keep the direction consistent with the land’s shadows.
  • Integrate the clouds and their movement into the rest of the painting. In “Squaring Off” I show a somewhat moody, stormy sky with a directional movement towards the left. The bison on the right is also pushing his opponent left so it sets up a similar energy. With the fighting going on a calm, clear sky would not have supported them. Also notice how the ground colors are incorporated in the sky and cloud color; there is cohesion between the two areas

  • The sky is not a flat wall: it overarches. It is a curve starting over your head and descends to the hori-zon. It starts dark at the top of your painting and gradually as the distance increases it gets lighter be-fore meeting the earth. Show atmospheric perspective by making the meeting a soft one; blend the two together so there is no harsh line.
  • Skies and clouds are useful tools that can be used deliberately to set up your subjects. In “Sleek on Summer Grasses” I used the dark grey cloud at the top left to frame my horse. The grey background enables the livelier colors of the horse to shine through. Also notice how the sky has been integrated into the land; colors are the same, soft edges touching down and clouds that seem to touch the hill

  • What time of day is your painting? If it’s morning the sky will look very different than sunset. If you look away from the sun during a sunset it will also look very different. The sun shining above, side-ways, below the clouds will all light them up differently. Mornings are generally pearl colors: pinks, peach, buffs, soft ochres and warm greens or blue greens and will be light values. Afternoons are warmer colors but more middle values: reds, yellows, oranges, red violets, blue violets. As the day lengthens the colors deepen and this is why sunsets are so dramatic.

Clouds need practice and I find pastels with their layering ability to be a wonderful medium to building them. Once you start making them believable in your landscapes they will become an important part of your painting as they can provide as much color and interest as your landscape.

Christine Camilleri, AFCA, MPAC, IAPS MC

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