Friday, March 4, 2016

Painting Dramatic Skies Using Oils

Rainbow Sky
10x8 Oil on Canvas

The Blaze
12x12 Oil on Canvas

Whether painting sunsets, sunrises, or dramatic storm clouds, I have found that a selection of colors and techniques using oils can greatly impact the outcome. Concepts in this post also overlap with my previous post, “5 Ways to Create High Contrast Oil Paintings”.

These are a few tips for painting skies in the studio with photographic references, and after direct observation.
Be prepared
Bring your camera – Since the early morning and evening light changes rapidly, it may be challenging to capture the moment painting on-site. With photography, values shifts can be recorded, even though the color spectrum is minimized within the digital image.
Carry a notebook – Record the time, location, and date. This is especially helpful for future visits. Sketch the general landscape and compositions to formulate ideas that best define the atmosphere. Note the intensity of colors and surrounding elements, such as rocks, trees, shrubs, or other structures specific to the area.
Pack essentials – Bring snacks, drinks, and bug spray. Ensure batteries are fully charged and carry extra memory cards. Wear hiking shoes with a good tread. Check for temperature changes during the evening hours and bring warm clothing or a jacket if necessary.  
Arrive early – Arrive early and set up your equipment. Prime locations for viewing sunsets/sunrises are rarely kept a secret. Know where to park and how far it is to reach your destination.
Stay late - With sunsets, there is often a second display of color changes when the orb of the sun disappears.
The paintings above depict a single evening of a sunset as viewed from a parking lot at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We arrived an hour early, as recommended by the locals. Within the next 30 minutes, the parking lot was full. The wind was blowing and the temperature was in the 40’s, as compared to the mid-day’s high in the 80’s.
Depict the Value Scale  
Maximize the sunset effect with an uneven light to dark ratio. These paintings are mainly in the dark to med/dark tones and white is used sparingly.
Allow Adequate Drying Time
The technique used for these paintings was underpainting, drying, and layering. They were developed over a period of 3-5 settings. Each setting is an application of paint, attempting to keep the colors fresh and vibrant.
Exaggerate the Elements and Create Energy
Defer from the photograph and add your own personal touches. Vary the brushstrokes and relive the moment. In these paintings, I decided to emphasize the lakes, which in reality, appeared as small pools of water. In the photograph, the land is a solid black mass. By adding a hint of treetops and lighter blue tones in The Blaze, there is a greater sense of perspective and energy that I wanted to project.
Blend Colors Effectively
Note the wet paint colors that are near each other on the canvas. Before blending, predict the effect they will create.  Determine if the base coat will show through the layers or will be covered with an opaque pigment. For this reason, I recommend that beginners start with either a white or solid black base coat.
Avoid “The Green Sky”, as I like to call it (because I have done this, too! ). If you add yellow and blue in the same sky, either let them thoroughly dry or avoid blending those areas near each other. If placing yellow along the horizon, consider using a red-based paint color as a buffer between the blue. Instead of the casting green tone, there will be a pretty purple color.
Thanks for following along! Feel free to leave a comment, question, or answer J.


  1. Painting Dramatic Skies Using Oils - Occasionally I search the web for artists who embrace their craft ... and sometimes I find something unexpected - such as this painting. Kudos.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Elizabeth! How motivating! Your feedback is very insightful and I will be writing more on the subject of skies and sunsets soon. Gratefully, Eve


Thanks for your comments!