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Tips on How to Paint Sky Between Tree Branches

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

How to paint areas where sky and tree meet, making them look natural and believable.  Learn how foliage and thin branches change the color of the sky. How to make sky holes believable carefully varying placement, shapes, color, value and temperature.

How to paint areas where sky and tree meet, making them look natural and believable. Learn how foliage and thin branches change the color of the sky. How to make sky holes believable carefully varying placement, shapes, color, value and temperature.

What Are Sky Holes?

Sky holes are simply the negative spaces we see in the structure of the tree. They are areas of light that break through a tree.

They occur where there is a break in the foliage, often alongside the trunks and branches.

Technically what you see are patches of the sky, however, you can't paint them the same color as the sky above.

Elements that Make Painted Sky Holes Believable

  1. Placement - Where you choose to paint the sky holes inside trees.
  2. Variety – Sky holes are irregular and organic, not all the same or equally spaced.
  3. Color – It’s usually duller than the color surrounding the tree.
  4. Value – It’s darker than the sky.
  5. Temperature – The color of the sky holes is cooler than the color of the surrounding sky.
Use sky holes as negative space to help the viewer define the structure of the tree.

Use sky holes as negative space to help the viewer define the structure of the tree.

Rule to Adjust Sky Color: Make it Darker, Duller, and Cooler (DDC)

When you paint the sky between foliage, don't use the same paint color that you used for the sky around the tree.

If you paint the holes the same pastel color as the sky around, they’ll appear too light, ultimately looking like Christmas lights.

In between the darker areas of the trees, the sky color needs to be Darker, Duller, and Cooler (DDC).

Darker = lower value

Duller = lower chroma

Cooler = lower temperature

Why do sky holes require a different paint color than the sky?

What we see as holes—the spaces between the leaves and branches where the sky shows through—do not always show a clear view of the sky.

There are small branches and leaves within these spaces that may not be apparent to the naked eye, but act as screen for the light that comes through. As this occurs, the intensity of the light, both in value and color, is weakened.

The smaller the hole, the more small branches and leaves are filtering the light. To visualize the difference, imagine looking through a glass window (the big hole) and a screened window (the small hole).

The sky seen through the screen appears a bit darker, duller, and cooler than the clear sky, even though our eyes don't always register that difference—see the explanation of simultaneous contrast below.

For more information about painting believable trees, check out this other article with a step-by-step painting tutorial showing the process of creating the trees in the photo below.

Three trees with sky holes, a mid-step work-in-progress featured in my article about a painting tutorial on how to paint believable trees mentioned above.

Three trees with sky holes, a mid-step work-in-progress featured in my article about a painting tutorial on how to paint believable trees mentioned above.

Where do You Place the Sky Patches Between Branches?

The trick to painting believable sky holes is in their placement.

If you observe trees around you, you’ll notice that sky holes are usually in between masses of leaves.

Look at the structure of the tree you are painting, and find those voluminous areas. Right in between the leafy areas is where you put the sky holes.

Also, they are usually placed close to one of the main branches.

As always, “less is more.” A few strategically placed sky holes will depict the character of the tree far better than reproducing every single one.

With a few well-placed sky holes John Constable rendered the structure of these trees. The Cornfield - 1826, John Constable.

With a few well-placed sky holes John Constable rendered the structure of these trees. The Cornfield - 1826, John Constable.

Before Starting to Paint the Globs of Sky on the Tree

  • Stop: Slow down and take your time. Rushing leads to messy sky holes that don't always make sense.
  • Squint: Squinting simplifies your reference tree and allows the light areas (the sky holes) to become more obvious. Look where they occur and what shape they are. They are not always round holes or squiggles.
  • Search: Find the sky holes and put them in. Place them carefully. Try not to rush.
  • Avoid squiggles, circles or "ornaments." It is advisable to keep at least one edge of the sky hole soft to replicate the refraction of light as it fights its way through the tree. Keep the shapes organic and varied. Avoid squiggles or perfectly geometric shapes.The "ornament" effect occurs when the sky hole value is too light or the edges are all too sharp. The marks look stuck on the tree rather than breaks in the foliage.

How About You?

Landscape with Viaduct, 1885-1887, Paul Cezanne

Landscape with Viaduct, 1885-1887, Paul Cezanne

Do You Paint Sky or Branches First?

There's no right or wrong approach on what to paint first. In general, I like to work from background to foreground, which means that I like to paint the sky first, thinly, and then paint the tree branches on top.

Trees over sky don't form sharp edges. The leaves and the small branches create lost and soft edges. Working with oils, it's easier to blend the edges and keep them soft. Working with acrylic, the paint dries quickly, and soft edges are a little trickier to create.

You can paint the area where tree and sky meets by mixing some sky color with the tree color, or scumbling.

Learn more about soft, sharp, and lost edges.

Simultaneous Contrast

Every color's appearance changes in relation to the colors next to it.

We refer to this relative perception as simultaneous contrast.

Due to the simultaneous contrast, if we paint both sky and holes the same color, the color placed in the holes, surrounded by darker colors of the tree, will look much lighter in comparison. It’s a visual phenomenon.

The Basin at Argenteuil,  	circa 1872, Claude Monet

The Basin at Argenteuil, circa 1872, Claude Monet

Light Diffraction

Light waves travel in straight lines, but when they they pass through an opening or around a barrier, such as a sky hole or tree foliage, they tend to bend around that barrier and become spread out.

This effect is called diffraction. The light waves lose linearity and their appearance is less bright than the sky itself.

A Quick Recap

When painting sky holes:

  • Make them slightly darker, duller, and cooler than the sky around the tree.
  • Place them in places where it makes sense, in between leafy masses, usually next to the trunks or main branches.
  • Keep the shapes organic and varied.
  • Soften the edges.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Robie Benve

Comments

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 03, 2018:

Great tips on technique and style for this particular application. I enjoyed reading this and the examples were well chosen.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 08, 2016:

Hi BlossomSB, what a great story you shared! It tells very well the struggles of being an artist. : )

Glad to hear my writing provided some useful tips, that's exactly why I am writing hubs: to share with others what I learn the hard way, hoping that it will help painters find shortcuts and ease the struggle. : )

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience! Happy painting!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on March 07, 2016:

Thank you for that great explanation. Our artists' group had a competition recently; it had to be of a landscape, and as I had been invited to a wedding about 4 hours' drive away, I took my camera and got some good shots of the Grampians (the ones in Victoria, Australia). It was fun painting it and I was quite happy as I went along with the gardens, fences, the mountains and the trunk of an old gum-tree. However, the leaves and holes were another matter! I gave up and painted from a photo I'd taken a few years ago of a chasm in Central Australia - all rocks and rich colour with not a tree in sight! Still didn't win, but I was much happier with the result. I really needed those tips, so again - thank you!