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Sky Studies with Oils, Part 2, by Norman Battershill

Posted on Wed 24 Apr 2019

Sky Studies with Oils, part 2

In this second feature, Norman Battershill encourages sources of visual recall and imagination.

If you want to paint skies well don’t overlook the importance of small outdoor oil colour studies, which need not take more than half an hour each. Painting quickly adds vitality to your work. Each study adds to your understanding and store of visual recall for painting in the studio. Placing a card mount around your plein air painting may reveal a little gem worthy of framing. Away from the various distractions of working outdoors, the main advantage of studio painting is the opportunity to work with greater concentration.

Copying a sketch and enlarging it is not always successful. Use it as the basis for a new painting.  Reconsider composition and make any necessary corrections. This is best done as pencil or charcoal thumbnail sketches before putting a brush to canvas.  You may decide to develop a studio painting from a combination of outdoor sketches. However, remember that the sky is the keynote. 

Decide on cloud form and atmosphere before anything else. Visual recall and imagination are great assets for studio painting. Creating a painting without the use of a reference is an exciting challenge. As a springboard, start with an aspect of weather. Winter skies and summer skies offer plenty of opportunities for a wide variety of atmospheric effects.

The tone value of landscape is more easily judged if the sky is established first. Attention can then be given to the overall tonal key and effect of light on the landscape. Once this has been decided and roughed in with thinned paint, the painting is progressed as a whole. Landscape is generally darker than the sky. However, there are occasions when a shaft of sunlight strikes part of the landscape like a theatre spotlight. It is tempting to overstate the dramatic effect. Judging the right tone value is essential to retain harmony.

Evening Sky.  Oil on board.  16” x 20”

My purpose in this studio painting is to create an effect of tranquillity and the atmosphere at dusk. To achieve transparency and depth in the sky I painted over a wet underpainting of raw sienna with a mixture of cobalt blue and a touch of alizarin. It would be almost impossible to paint this subject direct from nature. Subtle effects of gradation would last only a few moments and the beautiful light-filled sky would quickly become darker. I have not used any reference material and rely on my visual recall and imagination. With all my studio landscape painting I have the ability to believe I am actually standing in the setting. With this painting I could hear the stillness and see the light fading. It is a wonderful gift developed from outdoor studies and an awareness of atmosphere.


Loss of contrast

The most effective sky paintings are simply stated. Overworking with too much detail can weaken a painting. To overcome this problem in the early years of teaching myself to paint I changed to bigger brushes. More effectively, I signed my painting when I considered it nearly finished. As a result of that discipline I learned the importance of simplifying. It also resulted in a remark from a friend: “Your paintings are like my front room. Not much in it.”

Leaving out unnecessary detail applies to the sky as well as the landscape. For your next studio painting be bold and see how much you can simplify the subject. Clouds have many subtle tones. To copy all that you see is a matter of choice, but too many close tone values result in loss of contrast. Keep the number of tones to three or four.

I mentioned some essentials of composition in the first article, but the importance of composition is often overlooked when painting skies. A reminder of further aspects will not be amiss. Cloudy skies can give the inexperienced artist problems. A poorly conceived sky results in failure of a painting. The arrangement of cloud shapes should be balanced, in harmony with the landscape.

Winter Light. Oil on canvas 16” x 20”

Creating a painting in the studio without the use of a reference can develop in several ways. With a large brush I painted the cloud with a mixture of indigo, ultramarine and titanium white. The idea of a winter scene began to emerge, so I roughed in the imaginary landscape of trees and distance. Next came the foreground. The white priming in the middle distance gave the impression of snow so I left it as it was. The contrast of a warm middle tone sapling added to the effect of brief winter sunlight. My imaginary painting was then complete.

Geometric placing of cloud shapes appears contrived and obvious. A natural effect brings life to a painting. Avoid placing emphasis in the middle or on the extreme edge of the picture. Layer clouds are often seen at an acute angle. Lowering the tone value will have the effect of reducing emphasis. Colour and tone are also elements of composition.

A simple and effective method of developing a composition for a cloudy sky is to wipe out cloud shapes with a turpsy rag. This is easier and more effective at the start of a painting when the thin underpainting is still moist. As your painting progresses modifications will be necessary, but try to retain your original scheme, and keep the sky fresh and direct.


Aerial atmosphere

Achieving a sense of depth and recession in landscape painting is the purpose of most artists. Skies contribute to the effect of distance. Clouds appear to become smaller and closer together as they recede toward the horizon. The flat base of heap cloud is one of the cloud types that emphasise recession.

Avoid the monotony of too many horizontal rows of clouds. The natural order of an overhead cloudy sky is in three planes, near, middle-distance and distance. Diminishing cloud shapes, the graduation of tone values from near to distant and the greying of colours toward the horizon are the elements of aerial atmosphere.

Rain cloud sometimes appears to be darker than landscapes, but this is often an illusion. If you have difficulty in judging the tone value of cloud related to the landscape, put a brush mark of colour on a slip of paper then hold it against the landscape and compare the difference in tone.

A cloudless blue sky is never as bland as illustrated in some holiday brochures. The sun has an influence of warm colour.  Add a small touch of cadmium red, alizarin or raw sienna to your blue colour mix. Observing the difference between various blues is essential for painting skies and landscape. A colour-maker’s chart of a range of colours is a useful reference. One manufacturer’s list includes 13 different oil blues. Cerulean and cobalt blue are clear bright and deeper, and it is a good workhorse popular with many artists, me included.

Elms. Oil on board 7” x 12”

Brushwork in this outdoor oil painting adds energy and mood to a simple subject. Verticals of gate and posts together with the horizontal cloud base balance and the diagonals of hedge and trees. I added the rooks to give depth and scale. I used ultramarine and burnt umber for the sky; and burnt sienna, raw sienna and yellow ochre for the field and hedge.

My palette for skies also has Payne’s grey and indigo. Both are strong colours, but mixed with white they produce beautiful subtle greys for skies and landscape. Judging the tone of blue sky between clouds can easily be overstated. If the blue is made too dark or too bright the sky spaces in your painting will look like holes.


Magic at dusk

Working from photographs has been common for many years. The camera can record a scene in a split second and photographs provide useful references for studio painting. However, avoid being too dependent on a photograph. Put it aside after your painting has progressed a little and let your imagination take over.The same applies to studio paintings developed from outdoor sketches. Visualising mood and atmosphere for a studio painting is exciting.  Give your inventive spirit full rein.

Sky effects and atmosphere are magical at dusk, but that is also one of the most testing times of day to paint. I faced the challenge when I featured in a Winsor & Newton instructional film. The subject was to be dusk painted in acrylics outdoors. By the time the film crew and I had selected a vantage point the light was already fading. Luckily, the painting went well and I finished it just before dark.

November. Oil on board.  16” x 20”

For my studio painting I used pencil sketches and a photograph for accuracy of this well-known Dorset setting on the River Stour. The photograph was taken in high summer with lush meadows and bright sunshine. However, I wanted my painting to be more atmospheric. A winter mood determined by the sky and effect of light on the river and meadows was my choice. Getting the tone values right was essential to achieve harmony between sky and landscape.

There are always possibilities for several paintings from one subject. Changing conditions of light and atmosphere create many moods. I live in the heart of the Blackmore Vale in Dorset, where the countryside is gently undulating and big skies are a feature. Every day, I am aware of the wonderful diversity of cloud shapes and the effect of light on the landscape. 

The ability to paint skies well is within reach of all leisure painters. Every lesson we learn direct from nature is the way to success. Remember John Constable’s wisdom: “The sky is the source of light and governs everything”.

Sky Study.  Graphite pencil on cartridge paper 6” x 8”

My pencil sketch of a chaotic cloudy sky indicated the approach of rain. As the sun is obscured by dense cloud the effect of light is flat and without contrast. My sketch may have use as a subject for painting. Even if it doesn’t, I have learned a bit more about skies.


This article was originally published in the July 1999 issue of Leisure Painter


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Sky Studies with Oils, Part 2, by Norman Battershill

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