Lone cloud painting and How to paint paint blue skies


Detail of skyscape painting
Detail of skyscape painting


I cloudscape painting in watercolorswanted to look into the sky gradations a little more closely so I decided to do a simple skyscape painting. Also, I had been meaning to try this broken color technique from a long time, ever since I read this beautiful book on color by Walter Sargent actually (links at the end of article), but I held out at doing the excercises mentioned and waited to use it in something representational. This technique is used to set up a vibration or pulsating quality to a tone by placing it along with its two adjacent hues in the hue wheel. For e.g, here to achieve the blue tone of the sky I have used green, blue and violet in wet in wet washes. Green and violet when mixed together on the palette make a low chroma blue, so placing them next to each other instead of mixing them fully on the palette lets them be mixed visually by the eye so the area has a kind of shimmering quality to it that would not exist in a flat tone of blue. The tones must be controlled so that the overall effect from a distance looks blue and not green or violet and also so that the effect gradates from a warm blue to a cool blue and lighter to darker away from the sun (as discussed previously). The values of the 3 hues must be the same in any one area.

first washes - broken color
first washes – broken color

This quality of broken color or different colors playing subtly against each other actually does exist in nature, if we try to match a color sample or swatch from a home depo store to any color in nature, we see that they will never match exactly. The way the light plays across or through its surface, its texture and anamolies, reflected light from other surfaces all contribute to a sensation of its own unique color quality with its different group of tones which sets it apart from other surfaces which might have the same color but give a different color sensation. For e.g, red stained glass looks different from a red apple or a red piece of velvet. Distant mountains or trees catching the light of the sinking sun will have specks of complementary(to the light source) colors playing in their shadows. Its good to observe these effects first in nature before starting to apply them as `techniques`or `formulae` because I feel, that that will prevent direct observation of facts and consequently in the long run also our own creative expression of these facts if they are practiced before first perceiving them. Its more important to train the eye than the hand. The hand naturally follows the eye. In any case, its a very interesting study even for those who don`t paint. I remember back in the days when art was the last thing in my mind, I used to go up to our terrace with a book of Jiddu Krishnamurti or the Mother just before sunset time, to read and, at the end of a few sentences, I would look up and lose myself completely in nature, becoming one with the vast skies, the leaves rustling happily in the trees and the birds hurrying back, so content, to their resting places. Now after reading a lot of books on light and color, and knowing what to look for has only deepened my appreciation for color, what a profound joy it gives, just color in and of itself without any form to support it! In another place and time now, we have two balconies one facing to the north and one to the south and I can see patches of sky and hill in all four quadrants of the sky so I love to scurry along back and forth between the two to compare the colors at different times of the day and different weather conditions.

Well, back to the painting, here I have started laying in the color of the mountains, they are quite blue in the distance and as they come towards the viewer they get warmer or greener.

laying in the mountains
laying in the mountains

Talking about warm and cool colors immediately gives the impression of saturated yellows and reds versus blues to the mind but landscape colors are quite unsaturated and the gradations very subtle. You can use cards that have small holes punched in them and look through these to compare colors in the different parts of the sky. Color can be very deceiving, how we perceive a color depends largely on the colors surrounding it and so to isolate it helps us see its true color. You can also use the color picker on your photo editor to look at these differences. Here I have picked out colors from the top left part of the sky (where the sun is shining from) down to the horizon. You can see the low chroma blue (which has more yellow in it than the blue on the right hand side) going slightly greener and lighter towards the bottom. As it goes down the chroma also gets weaker that is , it gets grayer because additive mixing of blue light and yellow light (at horizon) makes white light. The luminous glow at the horizon is actually a slightly darker tan color, if we make it the light and bright orange yellow that it looks like, the area will come forward unnaturally (this tan color becomes grayish towards the right side). The next two colors are the colors of the very distant mountain and the nearer one.

sky gradations
sky gradations

Here are the colors of the mountains, which are very close to neutral yet changing from blue and light to green and dark. They look almost of one tone but the shadows have bits of blue and violet in them so this is where the broken color technique can be used.

mountain gradations
mountain gradations
Landscape painting in watercolors
finished painting



Further resources:

20th century but still relevant book on color, how light effects surfaces, color sensations, color mixing and techniques, color harmonies … a beautiful book : The Enjoyment and Use of Color by Walter Sargent.

Artist and illustrator James Gurney explains the gradations that occur in blue skies in his well researched article Sky Blue.

Pastel artist Richard Mckinley explains how he uses the broken color technique in his beautiful works at Painting Blue Skies.

Another 20th century book which makes for a thoroughly fascinating read is by Faber Birren , in which he talks about color effects in contrast to color schemes : Creative Color


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