Our sky isn’t always blue. Think of a perfect snowy day, the pearly light of a cloud-covered sun illuminating the horizon. How about a brumous November morning, drizzle so fine it tints the air with silver mist? These are the realm of watercolors, those moody, misty skies that we would love to capture in our paintings.
Sometimes a big blue sky with white fluffy clouds would just overwhelm the scene and keep us from achieving that more subtle feeling of moody weather. I’ve got a few tips that I keep in mind when I want my skies to provide emotion, atmosphere or become the quiet backdrop for a landscape painting.
1. Stick to one color, even if its mixed with two or three pigments.
There are many instances when we might want to pull out all the colors — like a magnificent sunrise, or a dark and stormy sky. But subtle, atmospheric skies that we see in the fall and winter are almost always better when we keep things simple, like the winter landscape you see above. By sticking to a gentle, dusty rose hue, I make a statement with the sky without overpowering the rest of the painting.
2. Muted grays made with complementary colors make gorgeous atmospheric skies
Are you familiar with the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth? Look up some of his landscapes and make a note of his skies. They are rarely blue; mostly, they are shades of gray. His skies are very effective in setting the tone of his spare and moving landscapes.
Mixing the right grays can mean that we lend a rosy, golden, peach, green or even blue hue to our sky.
Let’s take a look at what a complementary color is, and then mix up some moody grays.
Complementary colors are pairs of colors which, when combined in varying amounts, cancel each other out. This means that when combined, they produce a gray-scale color or a more muted version of one of the two colors used.
When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast for those particular two colors. Have you ever noticed that an orange is even more orange when it’s in a blue bowl? That is the magic of complementary colors.
Any two colors across from one another on the color wheel are complementary colors, but lets keep it simple and look at the three sets of complementary colors we get from the primary colors of red, yellow and blue. Find red on the color wheel and then look directly across to the other side. What you see is green.
The main complementary color combinations are:
- Red and Green
- Yellow and Violet
- Blue and Orange
3. Keep things simple to create harmony.
Let’s say you are painting a pond in autumn with muted ochres, rich violets, crimsons and olive greens. You can use two of your colors — violet and ochre (yellow) — as complementary colors to create an atmospheric sky that is in perfect harmony with the rest of the painting.
The muted yellow sky gives a much more emotional feeling to the scene than if I would have used blue. It is also more harmonious with the rest of the painting, which lends a quiet atmosphere. But how do I achieve this with my complementary colors?
By using a violet paint and a yellow paint mixed together, we achieve a muted gray. We can use more violet to end up with a cooler gray, or more yellow to end up with a warmer gray.
In the painting above, I used a yellow pigment with just a touch of the violet I used in the trees to achieve a very warm, muted yellow hue. The same can be done with other complementaries:
The warm gray achieved by mixing red with green was used in the first painting seen in this post. I just used more red than green, and lots of water in my mix. And here is an example of orange and blue:
We can achieve truly luminous and interesting sky colors by making washes with two complementary colors that are already being used in our paintings. Notice how I used plenty of water in my mixes to create paler tones for these quiet and atmospheric skies. We don’t want to go too bold here. Softness is key.
So now that we understand how to mix these moodier hues for our skies, let’s learn how to apply them to a painting.
I find it really important to keep the sky a simple, yet effective element in these more atmospheric, brumous or wintry landscapes. Think about a rainy day sky: the silvery effect you might notice. Or the sky that’s bright but seems backlit with pearly hues when it’s snowing. Soft, simple and pale tones are what we want to achieve. If there are clouds, they will be wispy and light, barely noticeable
Here are some examples of simple landscapes with atmospheric skies, and the techniques I used to create them.
I think you will agree that a bold or typical blue sky would not have given the paintings the same effect.
For the simple landscape above, I used a limited palette of French ultramarine blue, Winsor yellow and permanent alizarin crimson.
I created different shades of green by mixing the blue and yellow and adding touches of alizarin crimson to dull it down. I created the violets by mixing the blue and the red (alizarin).
For the sky I used some of the violet that I had mixed and added a bit of the Winsor Yellow that I had used for the greens. This gave me a soft gray that was in harmony with the rest of the painting. I wet the sky area, washed in the gray mix, leaving white space for where I wanted the illusion of a cloud. I used a clean, damp brush to soften the edges.
In this painting, I also used a limited palette of cadmium red, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and cadmium yellow.
I created these muted, dull greens with the blue and yellow and added a touch of burnt sienna where I wanted more warmth.
For the sky, I created a very diluted wash of cadmium red with a touch of the green I had used in the trees. This color was also used in the reflection of the sky in the water. Cadmium red really glows when it is diluted down and used as a transparent wash. Using a touch of the green from other parts of the painting helped give the sky harmony and a nice contrast with the muted green of the foliage.
This pastel landscape is pure atmosphere and imagination. By using various hues of turquoise, blue, deep violet and yellow, I created a magical atmosphere that is more impressionistic than based in reality.
For the sky, I used lemon yellow, which was also used to create the turquoise hues, and just a touch of the deep violet, which is quinacridone violet mixed with French Ultramarine.
I wet the sky area and made a broad wash with the slightly muted yellow, then dropped in a very diluted wash of the quinacridone violet at the edges. This yellow sky isn’t bright or loud, but instead a complementary contrast to the deep violets found in the painting, giving it a luminous quality.
I hope that you will give these ideas a try the next time you paint an atmospheric sky. Think quiet, think complementary colors, think simple — and let the sky bring harmony to your overall quality of light.
Mix the glowing, harmonious watercolors
Join Kateri in her online video class and learn how to use fundamental techniques and a limited palette of just six pigments.