Drama In the Skies!

In a landscape painting, the sky affects the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the whole painting.  As painters, we strive for an interesting, perhaps a dramatic sky whether or not that is what we see in front of us.  Clear blue skies can appear bland and less than inspiring.  In a painting the artist hopes to design a sky that helps create the most effective mood for the subject.  Ask yourself, “What does this subject need to make it work well?”

If a landscape or seascape is busy, with lots of details or information, a simple sky treatment might be a good choice. 

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On the other hand, a moody, vibrant, or striking sky would complement a composition with a low horizon line, as in a stark, brooding moor or a bold sunset. 

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As another example, a roof in the rain could take on a gleam of silver as the sky reflects off it.

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It is essential to decide what sort of sky is involved in a landscape painting BEFORE starting the painting.  This statement is true even if a sky will not actually be seen in your picture, because the appearance of the light depends entirely on the sky.  A landscape can be creatively transformed by altering the light or weather conditions in a painting.  Light and shadow, color and mood should be consistent throughout your composition, so skies must be part of your initial planning.

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Wilfred Ball, in Weather in Watercolour (1986), describes the “creative transformation” of planning a composition by altering sky and weather details.  “Buildings, walls, gates, fields and mountains tend to be relatively formal features of the landscape, but the effect on them of such variables as the light, seasons and weather is capricious and magical” (p. 9).  And changes in the sky and weather are “merely an extension of the creative process that goes on whenever we paint.  Almost without thinking we strengthen this, weaken that, miss out a tree here, heighten the colour of an autumn tree to focus attention on it.  These devices are all ways of recomposing the subject to increase its impact.  Indeed it is this kind of alteration, that we make to the subject matter as we saw it, that is the creative process in what would otherwise be a straightforward copying procedure.  Using the weather creatively is one of the most effective of all the transformation devices a painter can use” (p. 11).

Thus, you should not be afraid to use a bit of imagination when creating a sky.  Think about the colors you will use in your painting, and have them mixed and ready to go.  Mix up large, juicy puddles of the sky colors you will use.  Mix lots more than you think you will need to insure that you won’t run out or have to skimp while painting!

Have your plan thought out before wetting your paper.  Skies are often painted wet-in-wet, though other techniques (wet on dry, for instance) can also be used.  To begin, wet the sky area with clean water.  As soon as the shine goes from the paper (and when it appears to have a more matte finish), DROP in your colors by floating the pigment across the paper.  Try NOT TO PUSH the colors around, instead letting the colors mix together on their own.  Do not overwork or touch the paint while it is drying.  During drying time, the sky continues to develop ON ITS OWN with a subtle blending of colors.  Timing is all-important.  Don’t paint back into your sky; be assured, and paint with confidence.

To increase the feeling of distance in your sky, lighten the sky toward the horizon.  Colors can be warmer and darker higher in the sky.  Don’t view the sky as separate from the rest of your painting.  Remember: it affects your entire landscape.  You can achieve the needed harmony by echoing the sky colors in the rest of the picture.  For example, include warm sunlight on the side of a building or reflections of a sunset on water or snow.

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What colors should you use?  Sometimes you may want to add yellow highlights to a blue sky.  Have you ever laid down a sky with blue and yellow and had it start to turn green where the two colors met?  The effect has something to do with color bias and color mixing.  Certain blues have a red bias (they contain some red pigment), while others lean toward green, and whichever blue you use will react with other colors according to its bias.  If you are unsure how your colors will interact, try several combinations of blue and yellow on test paper.  Alternatively, lay down your pale yellow wash, and let it dry before adding blue.  This way, you will have less chance of creating green, even though you will also lose some of the soft mingling of color that occurs with the wet-in-wet technique.

To avoid surprising or unpleasant color mixes when combining colors in the sky, try arranging your color sequence like a rainbow.  In a naturally occurring rainbow, the colors appear in a sequence similar to (but not precisely the same as) the following; so from the top of the sky to bottom (horizon), you could use:

*Ultramarine (which has a red bias)

*Cobalt (no real bias)

*Cerulean (yellow-green bias)

*Raw Sienna (red-orange bias)

*Permanent Alizarin Crimson (or Perylene Maroon or Permanent Rose) mixed with  Ultramarine Blue. (Be sure not to use too much red.)

Put your colors in bands in this order, just overlapping the edges so the colors soften.  Keep in mind that you needn’t use every one of the above colors in your sky, but use at least two.  Your choices of colors will affect how each color blends with its neighbor when they touch.  Test your colors and technique on a test sheet before applying paint to your picture.  Make sure you understand the affect of your color choices so you can avoid unpleasant surprises.

A sky affects the tone and mood of the whole painting.  Plan ahead for a dramatic, interesting sky that integrates well with the rest of your picture.  The sky will suggest proper placement for shadows and even some of the colors you should use throughout your painting.  For example, strong Mediterranean sunlight will create harder lines and sharper contrast than a misty morning in the Scottish Highlands.  Don’t be afraid to use your imagination when creating a sky.  Don’t paint back into your sky, don’t fiddle, and don’t be impatient.  Instead, try to apply your colors confidently, with a large brush, and let the colors mix together on their own.

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Get In The Mood!

Mood is only one of the important effects we create in our efforts as artists to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. (Other main effects that we use include unity, dominance [or emphasis], variety, contrast, gradation, transitions, perspective, balance, rhythm and movement, pattern, and so on.) Establishing a mood will bring character and interest to your painting, while enhancing your subject. MOOD is the pervasive feeling evoked by your painting — for example, calm tranquility or languid, hazy heat. Mood conveys emotion to your viewer.

To intentionally create a different mood (also sometimes called ATMOSPHERE) in your painting, you might manipulate COLORS, VALUES, or CLARITY. To think about this issue more simply, you might consider first whether you want your picture to have a warm or cool feel to it ( COLORS lean toward warm or cool temperatures – see The Paint Colors and Brands on My Palette…, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/28/the-paint-colors-and-brands-on-my-palette/,  my blog published 8/28/18.); then you could decide on the dominant VALUE ( lightness or darkness, such as ‘bright and cheery’ or perhaps ‘dark and foreboding’); then, you could define the CLARITY (level of detail) you hope to achieve.

You could also create mood by manipulating the SPATIAL DESIGN of a picture. For instance, a large empty expanse in a painting could be used to create a sense of ease or openness, or even bleakness or emptiness. Converging lines could be used to make the viewer feel confined, closed in, or up close to a subject. To suggest calm and tranquility, keep your main lines HORIZONTAL, with one or two vertical lines to break up the monotony. (Water in a calm scene should be smooth, with mirror-like reflections, and with clouds echoing the predominance of horizontal line.) Strident VERTICAL lines will enhance feelings of awe, even fear. (Crags and mountainsides can appear intimidating, castles will seem impregnable, especially if trees, dwellings, or figures below are made smaller.) Strong DIAGONALS suggest a sense of dynamism and movement, and diagonally directed clouds with ragged edges will produce a sensation of strong winds and restlessness. (Diagonals guided toward the focal point emphasize its importance.)

Both value and clarity will determine the lighting in your painting, which in turn, will tell you the intensity of the colors you should use.  It is the literal atmosphere that creates figurative ‘atmosphere.’ For instance, the amount of humidity, snow, rain, dust, or fog in the air determines the quality of light that gets through it, as well as the colors and amount of detail we see. Think coastal fogs, dark clouds, or misty mountains! Mood often has a tonal range or value – these ranges can be described as low key, high key or middle key. A low key painting would be dark and could give a viewer a heavy or somber feeling. A high key picture would instead have a bright and cheerful effect. A middle key painting uses a wider range of values which could be used to create a wider variety of moods.

If you want a bright, sunny picture (also called high key) with sharp clarity, you want to use colors that are mostly pure. Do a lot of wet-on-dry painting for sharpness, show distant detail, and use shadows and highlights. In contrast, if you are striving for fog or haze, most of the colors you  use will be dulled because of subdued lighting. Use wet-on-damp techniques to produce soft edges, and flatten the background shapes so that they have few details. In this way, atmosphere contributes to ‘mood.’

Why should you worry about mood? Why should you care whether you create a specific mood in a painting?  Painters care about mood because a watercolor painting without a mood is dry, generic, uninteresting, and without feeling!  Try to move beyond a mere representation or photographic copy of objects in your art. Rather than precisely copying every detail in a picture, you should aim to suggest and imply.  While creating ‘mood,’ strive to interpret a scene by choosing the details to include and the ones to leave out. There is no need to tell the viewer everything! Mood adds drama and appeal. Allow each viewer to see something different, to use THEIR imagination, to feel their own emotion, and to participate in your painting. By creating mood and atmosphere when you paint, you will be on your way to creating a visual poetry that stirs deep feeling in your audience.

I Have an Image I’d Like to Paint. Now Where Do I Start?

As you approach a painting, it is absolutely vital that you think hard about what you’re doing. You can avoid many problems if you PLAN ahead and think through the sequence of painting steps. Before you begin to paint, you must stop and analyze the subject to be painted.  Learn to ask yourself some basic questions.  First, determine what it is you want to show and what you want to say about your subject. Why did you choose to paint this picture? Why were you drawn to this image? Does your image remind you of a favorite place?  Does the picture make you feel calm? Do you feel like laughing when you look at your subject?

Think about your MOOD. How does the scene make you feel? Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? Respond to your emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! For instance, does your painting depict hay being baled and loaded onto a truck on a sweltering hot, hazy summer day?  Can you just imagine your clothes clinging to you and your skin itching where loose hay sticks to your sweaty skin? You would definitely be looking forward to a tall glass of cold iced tea later while sitting in the shade! The mood and setting of this kind of picture should suggest certain paint color choices and techniques to you. You might use rich, warm summer greens for trees, ochres to show for dried grasses, bright, warm blues in a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds. In the distance, details might be a bit soft, paler, and obscured by the haze and humidity.  Cloud formations and vegetation during sunny high summer have certain characteristics they do not usually show during other seasons or weather conditions.

Come up with a plan of attack. Remember that there is not just one way to paint a scene! What approach are you drawn to? Will you paint background first? Do you want to paint all your underlayers first? Have some idea of what you want to do, but be open to adapting your plans as you proceed. Feel free to rearrange objects to strengthen your composition. You can also change the atmosphere, season, time of day, or direction of the light source in your picture. Decide on a center of interest to anchor your painting; then in view of what you choose as your focus, pick what details you will emphasize and what elements you will remove. It is best to SIMPLIFY your image – learn to really look at your picture and see Shapes, Values, Edges, and Color Changes – instead of “clouds,” “trees,” “roads,”or “faces.”  Then, ELIMINATE some things. Sometimes less is more! Don’t copy every detail you see – filter the details through your own eyes. Wouldn’t a few details be more interesting than having everything in precise imitation of the reality? (If you detail everything, you have NOT created a CENTER OF INTEREST to draw the eye of the viewer.)  Making such choices is one of the important steps in moving from being a painter to being an ARTIST. Your painting should share your impression of and emotions about a scene. You should not be striving for a rote photographic copy that expresses no feeling.

Once you determine the mood of your painting and think about what paint colors and techniques would give your painting the desired feeling, you can progress to make a light pencil sketch of a few IMPORTANT details of the image. Consider whether you intend to save the white of the paper with masking fluid before you begin painting. With masking complete, decide which parts of your painting you will paint first and with what techniques. Every picture is different, so in a way you will need to be a bit of a detective. If you enjoy puzzles, as I do, figuring out how you proceed through a painting can be an enjoyable challenge. The goal is to have a PLAN, with the construction of your painting broken down into small, manageable steps from the start to the finish of the process.

Often I begin a painting by painting the sky. If there is no sky to paint, I tend to start with the background and work gradually toward the foreground, painting light colors prior to darker colors, building up layers to create shape and form. Watercolor is seldom painted as one layer. I like to have light colors surrounded by dark, or vice versa, to create emphasis and impact, and to attract a viewer’s interest.  I also consider adjusting the colors in a painting to suit my own taste or to set the mood that I want to create. Fine details in the foreground or at the center of interest I often paint last.

As you gain experience as a painter, you will find it easier to rearrange objects, adjust colors, or simplify in your art. Try to be BOLD! You are a unique individual unlike anyone else.  Get your OWN feelings down on the paper. Dare to be yourself, and work to master your techniques of painting, and you will develop your own style and be likely to have success as a painter. And remember: the more you paint, the faster you grow!