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How to draw and paint skies

Drawing the sky

The sky figures prominently in most natural landscapes. Apart from compositions of the undergrowth or the edge of the forest, the chances are that much of your drawing will be taken up by the sky.

In short, this part of your drawing is of paramount importance and one might almost say that a well rendered sky, or even a well suggested one, would almost suffice to guarantee success. On the other hand, a sky lacking in conviction would ruin the whole composition!

The sky is in fact characterised by two key elements which you will learn to tell apart:

  • Thickness
  • Movement

A sky is not something painted on a curved surface like a dome. On the contrary, it is a three-dimensional space but this is something we tend to forget since we are more used to moving below it than within it.

But aircraft pilots know very well that the sky consists of different layers and that the elements encountered vary with the altitude.

A successful rendering of a sky is, once again, a question of translating the nature of that sky onto paper. This nature is materialised by the aspect of the air masses inhabiting this enormous space and appearing to us in the form of an attractive, often cloudy costume.

The sky may sometimes assume surprising colours – a boon for the painter and the artist but a headache for those of us wishing to draw. And yet, each of the colours of the sky has its own intensity which you will manage to render very well in your pencil drawing once you have pinned down its exact value.

You have no doubt often been entranced by the spectacular sight of the sky at sunset, full of vivid and sometimes almost surreal red and orange hues. We are so convinced that the sky is naturally blue that when we see it lit up like a fire, we tend not to realise that it is in fact the same sky seen through a thicker layer of atmosphere.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the sky is a huge reservoir in which the aspect of air masses, heavy with humidity, changes under the impact of condensation and evaporation and at the whim of barometric pressure. These masses are immediately recognisable to us as clouds.

Although there is virtually no end to the variety of shapes, we can thankfully narrow down these clouds into a few general families. Their shapes depend on their height and the temperature of the surrounding air.

The names used by the weathermen to describe these clouds reflect these criteria. They are not perhaps of immediate concern to us as artists but we should at least be on nodding terms with them in order to keep things clear in our heads.

The sky is not like a mountain or a forest, characterised by an imposing but essentially rigid mass. On the contrary it is the product of fast, slow, gentle or violent air movements.