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10 Tips on Painting Skies and Sunsets

Updated on November 28, 2016
Robie Benve profile image

Robie:an artist believing in the power of positive thinking, she paints images intended to bring joy the viewer and loves to share art tips.

Sharing What I Learned About Painting Clouds and Skies

In this article I'm sharing ten things about painting clouds and skies that I learned the hard way, hopefully they will help other artists to avoid some painting struggles.

  1. The Importance of Soft Edges
  2. Chromatic Grays Enhance the Vibrant Parts of a Painting
  3. Atmospheric Perspective
  4. Nothing is Pure White in the Sky
  5. Don’t Be a Slave of the Photo
  6. Use Bigger Brushes
  7. The Lightest Light is Much Lighter than You Would Think
  8. Thick Paint vs Glazes
  9. Linear Perspective in Clouds
  10. Rendering Clouds as Solid Objects

Tip on how to paint skies and sunsets. An article in which I am sharing the things that I learned the hard way, hopefully will help others avoid my mistakes and improving their paintings.
Tip on how to paint skies and sunsets. An article in which I am sharing the things that I learned the hard way, hopefully will help others avoid my mistakes and improving their paintings. | Source

The Importance of Soft Edges in Skies

Edges are critical when painting the sky. Both sky and clouds have some of the softest edges you can find in nature.

Like in every part of the painting, also in clouds a balance between soft and hard edges is very important. Edges will help you describe the volume of the clouds and the translucency.

Parts of the clouds are so thin that the sky behind will show through. Mixing the sky color into the cloud color, and keeping the edges soft and broken will help a lot.

Also, the sky at the horizon gradually changes color. This can be described very well with glazes and blending.

Example of soft and hard edges in clouds. "Much Needed" Detail - Oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved
Example of soft and hard edges in clouds. "Much Needed" Detail - Oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved | Source

Chromatic Grays Enhance the Vibrant Parts of a Painting

As much as I love the bright colors of sunsets, I soon realized that lots of intense colors are not good in a painting. You need some neutral colors in there to enhance the more intense areas.

You need some dull, “ugly” colors to make the vibrant colors sing. Grays are a great complement to a colorful sky. A bright orange will look even brighter if placed next to a gray.

When I say gray, I don’t mean a mixture of black and white or gray from a tube. I like to mix my grays from the colors that I have in the sky and the rest of the painting. This is important to keep the grays chromatic while ensuring color harmony: create grays with triads of complementary colors.

Atmospheric Perspective

Observe clouds as much as you can, it'll help you paint them.

Looking in the distance, colors and hues change, due to the amount of air and particles that are between the viewer and the object. This happens both on land and in the sky.

The more distance between us and an object, the stronger the filtering effect of the atmosphere.

Look at a landscape view that expands to the horizon and note how:

  • Colors are less intense in the distance, more intense in the objects closer to us.
  • Colors are cooler in the distance, and warmer in the foreground.
  • Value contrasts get smaller in the distance.

This is true for vegetation and for cloud formation as well.

Also, an important effect of the thickness of the atmosphere is how the sky color changes.

The sky is darker up above our heads, and gets lighter moving toward the horizon.

Nothing is Truly White in the Sky

Everything in nature is influenced by the color of light. I used to paint the top of the sunlit clouds a pure white.

Then I realized that the color of light infuses all other colors in the landscape, including the clouds. Nothing is true white in the sky.

Thus, I started tinting the white with yellow, magenta, violet, or blue, depending on the weather conditions and whether or not a cloud is in direct sunlight. At the minimum I mix a tiny bit of transparent orange into my white, to add some warmth.

I use zinc white for mixing into colors, and titanium white in highlights. That’s because titanium white is very opaque and “kills” the colors faster, while zinc white is more transparent and allows me to keep the vibrancy of the colors while lightening them.

"Glimpse" - Oil on canvas by Robie Benve, all rights reserved
"Glimpse" - Oil on canvas by Robie Benve, all rights reserved | Source

How About You...

Do you find painting skies easy?

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Don’t Be a Slave of the Photo

If you are painting from a photo, feel free to leave out elements that are in the photo but are not helping the composition. It’s often a good idea to edit the shape of clouds, move trees, smooth a coast line, etc.

Be open to changes that are good for the overall composition of your picture. Your painting will not be hanging next to the reference photo, no one will know if the cloud was rounder or the trees were all the same size.

Also, when painting from photo keep in mind that the camera alters color relationships. Dark areas look much darker in a photo; shadows tend to lose all the details. When observed in real life shadow areas are actually still showing much of their local color and variations.

Use Bigger Brushes

I thought I was using good size brushes. But I kept saying I wanted to paint loser. I was complaining that my paintings looked overworked. Then I understood: I needed to use bigger brushes.

At the beginning of the painting your brushes should be the biggest, and become smaller as you approach completion of the painting.

Thinks bigger shapes, don’t focus on details until the very end of the painting. Paint general to specific.

Throughout the painting, keep using bigger brushes than those you would instinctively use. Pick up a brush, then put it down and switch to one a couple of sizes bigger.

At the end add details with small brushes, but don’t overdo it.

Keep several brushes of assorted sizes an shapes handy. Start the painting with the bigger ones, use smaller brushes only later on, to add the final details.

The Lightest Light is Much Lighter than You Would Think.

This is another very important concept that I had a hard time understanding at the beginning. Yellow is a light color, right? So why was the yellow sky in my sunset looking like it wasn’t light enough?

Comparing a value chart to my reference photo and to my painting, I could tell that what I thought was a light value paint color, very often was much darker than I thought.

There is a disconnection about how a color looks while we are mixing it compared to when we apply it on the painting.

Temperature and value are relative to what surrounds a color. A color might look warm on the palette, but look cool once applied on the canvas.

On the same way I find myself mixing a light value, only to find out that it’s way too dark when I test it on the canvas.

As a rule of thumb: even on a hazy day, most likely the sky is the lightest shape in your painting.

Tip: When mixing a very light color, start from a light color (i.e. white) and add your darker colors a tiny bit at a time. It’s easier to go darker if it’s too light, but hard as heck to make a dark color lighter.

Value Scale

Value Scale
Value Scale | Source

Always look at clouds and notice perspective, coloration, size, lighting, etc.

Beautiful cloudy day reference photo I have taken one day from up the steps at the stadium.
Beautiful cloudy day reference photo I have taken one day from up the steps at the stadium. | Source

Thick Paint vs Glazes

The sky is made of air, vapor, and particles.

I like to start with very thin wash of paint. To start I dilute acrylics with water, and I thin oil paint with odorless turpentine, then I glaze the canvas, varying the colors of the glazes: light value in some areas, and darker in others, depending on the subject.

This initial layout of darks and lights helps me organizing my composition. I start this way both for the sky and more solid objects on the ground.

Once I have the layout of the painting clear, I start applying thicker paint in some areas. I have learned that it looks better, generally speaking, if darker colors are applied thinner.

In the sky, I use thicker paint for clouds that I want to appear more solid or closer to the viewer.

"Featherlike" oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved. Sometimes clouds are light and swept by the wind, like this colorful one.
"Featherlike" oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved. Sometimes clouds are light and swept by the wind, like this colorful one. | Source

Linear Perspective in Clouds

Lines and proportions in the sky are affected by the same rules of perspective that apply to objects on the ground, with vanishing points and all lines pointing towards them.

If you look at the clouds from an airplane, you realize that they are floating parallel to the surface of the Earth.

When you look at the clouds from the ground, it’s like looking up from under a huge table, where the clouds are the tabletop.

Clouds are getting smaller as they get closer to the vanishing point, just as any other object would respond to linear perspective.

Rendering Clouds as Solid Objects

When drawing or painting clouds, it helps thinking of them as solid objects. Though they have irregular edges and they might be transparent, visualize them as cuboids, box-shaped objects.

This helps a lot rendering shadows and lights of a cloud.

If you are painting clouds, make a sketch first on a separate piece of paper, using simple value shapes. Draw them as boxes. Determine which sides are in light, shade, partial shade or reflected light.

That will be you reference for your painting, but you’ll have to make the edges irregular and rounder to have good looking clouds.

Only Observing Clouds, Their Dynamics, How They Appear and Change, You Can Master Painting Them.

Painting Clouds: It Used to Intimidate Me So Much!

I can spend hours looking at the sky and the ever-changing clouds. Especially, I love sunsets. They make me smile inside.

Maybe because of this emotional attachment or just because of a visual pleasure, a few years back I started putting more emphasis on the sky of my landscape paintings.

At first I was terrified of painting clouds. Once on canvas, they never looked as I “painted” them in my head; most of the time my painted clouds appeared very amateurish, kind of childish.

But I kept trying. I started looking for art books and read about painting skies; I started watching painting videos on the subject.

More Beautiful, Fast Moving Clouds to Train Your Eye.

Self-Taught Art Lessons Made Me Better at Painting Skies

I am very attracted to scenes with astounding sunsets and gorgeous clouds, and one day I started painting them.

At some point it dawned on me that slowly I had created a series of painting with the sky as main focus, most of which were sunsets, and they weren’t bad!

Through my self-taught art lessons, I actually got much better at painting skies.

I became known among my friends for my sky paintings. In fact my first solo art exhibit was all about skies.

The card of my first solo art show in 2015: it was all about skies. :)
The card of my first solo art show in 2015: it was all about skies. :) | Source

Every Painting Teaches You Something New

Looking back at my first cloud painting, I realize how much I learned in the last three years about painting skies.

I keep working on it. Reading art books and articles, watching tutorials, taking classes, but especially painting, putting paint to canvas, helps me understand what works and what doesn’t.

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    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 12 months ago from Ohio

      LOL RTalloni, that sounds so familiar! Love the positive attitude though, that's the only way to success :)

      Skies are not an easy subject, that's exactly why I try to share the little I know - hoping it might help other artists. Focusing on those that turn out great is the key, I think. Sounds like you are doing great. Thanks a lot for your comment! And happy (or should I say heavenly) painting! :)

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 12 months ago from the short journey

      Thank you for sharing your experience and tips here. I'll be coming back to read the details more carefully because I still struggle with skies. One time my work turns out great, the next time I can only shake my head at the failure! I just say, "Oh well, maybe next time." :)

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