The laws of perspective apply to the sky just as they do to the land. So many perfectly good landscape paintings are ruined by a sky that looks like a limp curtain hanging at the back of the scene. With skies the chief fault is nearly always timidity.

A painting so often shown with an anaemic looking sky, the usual excuse is 'It looked quite strong when first put it on but it seemed fade back'. The answer is that when it was first painted, the rest of the landscape was put in, with perhaps a few dark trees and as a result the sky looked half strength. Although the same things happens time after time a beginner stills seems surprised and disappointed.

The only way is to start by taking your courage in both hands and paint it that much stronger and richer than it ought to be - then it will probably be about right when the whole picture is finished.

Another thing students tend to do is play about with their skies - pushing the paint around too much, sometimes painting a blue sky all over and then jabbing out their clouds with tissue paper. Its not correct using tissue paper, in painting - not even the super soft kind.

My own feeling is the less you touch and torture the surface the fresher and more professional the painting looks. Before painting the whole sky should be planned beforehand - what soft of weather conditions you are going to have, whether it's a windy, sunny day with lots of fleecy white clouds, or an approaching storm, or even a clear blue sky.

Basic facts

In general, painting skies is rather like going off a high diving board, it looks scary before you do it. Take a deep breath paint quickly and decisively; after few successes you'll begin to enjoy that mixture of skill and luck that combine to produce a fresh watercolour sky that works.

Some of the few basic facts about skies which will make them look more convincing. First, clear blue skies should never be flat but are darker above, and lighter as they approach the horizon.

I always do a very weak wash of raw sienna all over by sky just to give a creamy tint then paint blue strongly across the top, while the first wash is still very wet, and then graduate it so that by the time it reaches the horizon it's almost non existent.

It's important to realise that clouds have their own perspective too, in as much as the big one are always at the top of the picture and they gradually get smaller and weaker as they approach the horizon.

More confident

Try doing at least one sky every day. More you practice the more confident you become. You don't need to do the whole picture, just look out of the window any day of the year and work out quietly in your mind, before you actually get the brush in your hand, what sequence of washes you're going to use.

Select the essential features and simplify by using the big brush only and working quickly and decisively - you can even give yourself a time limit of say, ten minutes you'll be amazed how quickly you'll be working with increased authority and pleasure. Another simple rule to remember is that if you have a complicated landscape, give it a simple sky, but if you want to paint an elaborate sky, set it against a relatively simple landscape


Clear skies are generally darker above and lighter as they approach the horizon. Clouds generally get smaller as they approach the horizon. Skies have a luminous quality (not solid) and are generally lighter in value than the earth. Skies can be soft or crisp, light or dark, designed or appear natural.

Clear skies are made with graded washes (dark above, light below) and should never be flat looking, because the sky isn't flat. Tilt the board and apply the wash to dry or slightly damp paper. Be sure to have enough wash to finish the job.

Cloudy skies can be very dramatic or very gentle. Soft skies are brushed on to wet surfaces and crisp skies onto dry surfaces. Wet-in-wet skies are soft, particularly against a crisp row of hills or trees. Clouds on dry paper should be drawn lightly with pencil (if that is only necessary) and the darker blue or grey-blue brushed in around the clouds. The yellow-gray or gray of the clouds is brushed in the shadow areas and left alone.

Keep the values light unless a dramatic effect is needed. You can paint the sky first or leave it till later. Artists use both methods. In the foreground overlaps the sky, and is quite complicated, put the sky down first to avoid headaches later.

Since the clouds and skies are constantly changing, they can be manipulated by the artist to satisfy the requirements of each painting.

Three main families

There are three main families of clouds, namely cirrus, - a thin wispy high cloud; cumulus, a white, woolly type which has a light top where the sun catches it, with a shadow underneath; the third type is nimbus, which is a rain cloud and usually means business. Of course in reality, things are more complex, and you get the various types overlapping.

Note in the painting above titled a 'Sunny Day', I have created a sense of atmospheric perspective in the sky, helps to think of as a vast dome stretched over the landscape rather than a mere backdrop to it. Warm blues bring the foreground sky closer. The sky isn't a uniform blue all over.

Due to the effects of atmospheric perspective it appears brighter and warmer directly overhead, becoming increasingly cooler and paler colour as it nears the horizon. The horizon line is low which places emphasis on the sky and increases the illusion of space.

The picture is composed, with a very low horizon line, makes us feel involved in the scene, as if we were actually standing in the field looking up at the heaped clouds advancing towards us. Note also how the clouds overlap each other, creating an interesting diversity of shape and design - Here it captures, the glare of the warm sunshine in a village.

Tissa Hewavitarane


Wednesday, 28 May 2008