Norman Battershill shares the importance of giving time to analysing the state of the sky.

'There is no better foundation to painting skies well than by learning from nature,' says Norman. 'Devoting time to making a series of small sky studies follows the path of John Constable, William Turner and other dedicated landscape painters.

'If you follow this course you will develop an understanding of cloud types and how they determine the effect of light and mood of the landscape. It takes time and much study to achieve a degree of success, but there is wonderful pleasure to be gained.

'My apprenticeship to landscape painting began in the byways and riverside meadows of West Sussex.

'In the early years of teaching myself to paint I allocated the time to make outdoor studies every day on the way to my studio, whatever the weather or season. I enjoyed every minute and my dedication has rewarded me with a measure of success.

'Today, I am still seeking knowledge and continue with my studies outdoors. Skies and aerial atmosphere have a particular interest for me.

'I have chosen oil as the medium for these sky studies. It is capable of a wide range of expression and rich depth of colour.'

Illustration Number One. Sky Study. 5” x 7”. Oil on primed MDF

The colours I used for this sky study are Payne’s grey, ultramarine, burnt umber, cadmium yellow mixed with a touch of cobalt blue for the patch of grass, and titanium white.

For the effect of bright sunlight on the upper cloud I left the white priming untouched.

The clouds on the horizon are a mixture of raw sienna and titanium white.

What are clouds?

Clouds are formed by rising air carrying invisible water vapour.

The substance of cloud is an agglomeration of countless tiny water droplets like steam from a kettle. If the droplets become enlarged by condensation they fall from cloud, often as snow, but they also melt and reach the ground as rain.

When painting, visualise the substance of cloud and infinite space.

Flying along the Sussex coast at a few hundred feet in the open cockpit of a vintage Tiger Moth aeroplane, and zooming through space and dense cloud at high altitude in a super jet, are contrasting and exciting experiences of aerial atmosphere I will not forget.

Sketching skies

If you have not tried natural charcoal for sketching skies, this beautiful and expressive drawing medium should not be overlooked.

Experiment by making a variety of marks on cartridge paper, and lift out with a kneaded putty rubber.

Illustration Number Two. Dusk 4” x 6”. Charcoal on cartridge paper

My charcoal sketch above illustrates how well suited this expressive medium is for quickly capturing an effect of atmosphere.

As I sketched, the early evening sky became a subtle gradation of tone toward the horizon.

In the studio several days later I lifted out the streak of light with a kneaded putty rubber, transforming quite an ordinary subject into something more interesting and atmospheric.

Other dry drawing media are ideal for rapid linear and tonal sketches outdoors.

Try the following:

  • Soft carbon pencil
  • Graphite pencil
  • Soft pastel
  • Hard pastel
  • Crayon
  • Conté

Top tip

If you use a soft medium for drawing, apply charcoal fixative to prevent smudging.

For charcoal drawing this is essential.

Start in summer

Start your painting skies project in the summer. If possible, choose a day when there are heap clouds (cumulus) with well-defined forms.

Notice how the rounded shapes relate to the landscape by harmonising with the curved shapes of trees. Avoid making this appear contrived in your later studio painting.

Allow time to think carefully about your subject before beginning.

Determine in which direction the clouds are moving, and the source of light. Choose the most interesting part of the cloud formation. Ignore smaller aspects and go for the big shapes.

You are more likely to capture the essence of your subject by drawing quickly. Ignore the temptation to tidy up with fiddly detail. It is not always possible to get it right first time. You are working on paper, so wastage is not a problem. Just start again.


Balanced placing of cloud shapes is as important as the harmonious arrangement of the elements of landscape.

Composition must also be a consideration when sketching. A point of interest should be positioned just off centre. Heap cloud can create the most dramatic effect with great towering shapes developing vertically.

The challenges

Accepting the problems of cloud movement, fickle light and changing weather adds to the challenge and pleasure of painting outdoors.

Soft white pastel on middle tone blue or grey pastel paper is an excellent combination for capturing fleeting effects of light and cloud formation.

Time of day

In certain conditions of light and time of day, layer cloud can have the most beautiful subtle effects, particularly at dawn or the approach of evening.

Twilight is one of my favourite times – not just to capture the subtle gradation of sky at dusk, but also to convey a sense of tranquillity and solitude.


One of the pleasures of drawing is experimenting with different paper surfaces and drawing media. You may find a more expressive alternative to your usual method of working.

Illustration Number Three. Sky Study 5” x 6” Charcoal on cartridge paper

In the study above, a long straight line of buildings and trees stretched right across the landscape, but as my sketch was to be a cloud study I included only the group on the left. You can see how just this small area emphasises the effect of distance and aerial atmosphere.

First of all I established the tone of the sky by lightly smoothing in charcoal. The cloud shapes were then lifted out with a putty rubber.

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Having decided on the tone of the sky I could then determine how the landscape should be. It was tempting to include more houses and trees, but I kept to my initial decision.

Try this simple but effective charcoal technique:
  1. With a piece of soft tissue paper, gently rub a thin layer of charcoal over a piece of cartridge paper.
  2. Lift out lighter areas with a kneaded putty rubber
  3. Add dark tones with charcoal

My example of this technique, see above, took just a few minutes.

Some practice at home will quickly produce exciting results.

Remember to use charcoal fixative.

Choosing your support

Choosing what to paint on in oil colours is personal.

I use watercolour paper, MDF, hardboard (smooth side), canvas panels, canvas textured paper, canvas and cardboard.

Absorbent surfaces should be given a coat of acrylic gesso as a sealer.

Avoid using a surface with a pronounced texture.

Illustration Number Four. Summer Fields 8” x 10” Oil on panel

This outdoor pochade box oil painting, above, is an example of harmonising sky with landscape.

The day was sunny with a cloudless brilliant blue sky which gave me a problem. I wanted to capture the feeling of light and warmth but if I painted the deep blue sky as it was it would be much too prominent.

To create a harmony between sky and landscape in my painting I greyed over the blue and added touches of the same colour to the landscape.

Size matters

For oil colour sketches outdoors a small painting surface has advantages.

You will be more in control than working on a large painting, with a better chance of completion in a shorter time. I recommend 12” x 8” (30.5cm x20.5cm) and 11” x 8½” (28cm x 22cm).

I often make sketches smaller than 11” x 7” (28cm x 18cm).

To accommodate a smaller size panel in my larger pochade painting box I have fixed a cork floor tile inside the lid.

My painting panel is held in place by large map pins.

A wooden oil colour box can be adapted in this way to form an easel.

Preparing your surface

Painting on a white surface outdoors can produce glare, making it difficult to judge tone values. Staining the surface with diluted raw sienna, burnt sienna or ultramarine gives a pleasant ground to work on and unifies colours.

Plan ahead and have a series of panels prepared for use.


Cloud colour

Illustration Number Five. Sky Study 6” x 8½” Oil on canvas

For this colour sketch I used three colours: Payne’s grey, alizarin crimson, raw sienna and titanium white. The basic colour is grey mixed from Payne’s grey and titanium white. To this I added slight touches of alizarin and raw sienna.

Lifting out light areas with a clean rag is a quick method of establishing cloud shape and pattern.

Using a few colours to start with makes it easier and quicker to understand colour mixing.

As you progress the range of your palette can be extended.

To start with, I suggest Payne’s grey, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, raw sienna, burnt sienna, ultramarine and titanium white.

As a general rule the basic colour of cloud is grey, with an infinite range of pale subtle tints of colour and deep translucent shades.

Mixing greys

A simple way of mixing a wide range of subtle greys is to start with Payne’s grey. This is a strong colour so put a tiny amount from the tube on to your palette.

Add a touch to a greater amount of titanium white and mix together.

By varying the quantities of grey and white an extensive range of shades can be achieved, from a rich dense colour to just a whisper of the most subtle greys.

Illustration Number Six. Sky Study Blackmore Vale 6” x 8½” Oil on canvas

As a contrast to the opaque quality of paint in Illustration No. 1, this study is a demonstration of painting thinly in oils in the manner of watercolour.

The advantage of this technique is that oil colour thinned with turps dries quickly, a great asset when painting outdoors in fickle weather and changing light conditions.

While the paint was still wet I established the direction of light and cloud pattern by lifting out with a clean rag.

The colours I used were – ultramarine, cobalt blue, raw sienna, cadmium red, Payne’s grey and titanium white.

Extend the range by adding to a mix of pale grey small amounts of colour – burnt umber, raw sienna, alizarin, ultramarine, etc.

Top tips
  • Make a written note of your colour mixes for reference.
  • Learn to identify the colour of clouds every time you go out.
  • With each cloud study include a strip of landscape to give scale and a sense of depth.


This article by Norman Battershill was first published in the June 1999 of Leisure Painter

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