Not twenty minutes from where I live are some oil paintings, painted by the great Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner pre-dated and, no doubt, influenced the Impressionists that were to make a big, colourful splash with their paintings of atmospheric light. In the Turner oil paintings, which I spent the afternoon viewing today, you get the immediate sense of luminosity and of a strange, diffuse light.
Here are some of the paintings I viewed (unfortunately, the web doesn’t quite do justice to how they look in the paint, before your own eyes, but please be forgiving):
Even though placed amongst some very fine Gainsboroughs, Reynolds and Titians, these works leap from the walls, more than a hundred years after they were painted. I wanted to understand why.
Carefully observing these works, I noticed how the skies were rendered. In most cases, the sun was somewhere shining, even if the scene was stormy, covered in dark clouds, or if the scene was of a summer’s day, where you would expect clear blue skies. Turner had achieved this effect in what, to me, was a surprising way.
It was clear that part of the sky was yellow. Yes. Yellow! It was as if Turner had first coated his canvas with white, then added a golden, yellow colour, before going anywhere near blue paint. How many artists, today, reach for a tube of yellow paint, when starting to paint the sky?
Here are some colour picked swatches I lifted from the paintings:
You can see that, in isolation, these are all gorgeous, rich, golden, autumnal, earthy colours and yet they were picked from the sky and water! The bluest part of the image is a neutral grey, yet the blueness of the sky is clearly suggested.
What demonstrated great technique was that, as any artist that has ever painted wet-into-wet will know, the moment you introduce any blue into a yellow background, you get green. Instantly. Almost unavoidably. But there wasn’t a trace of green in any of Turner’s skies.
Knowing that Turner worked in oils and that oils take a very long time to dry, it must have been the case that Turner’s oil paintings were painted over a long period of time. The yellow would have had to have been bone dry, before the blue of the sky could be introduced at the edges of the canvas. The yellow base would have to be completely inert, before the introduction of a blue pigment, to avoid mixing on the canvas and producing green. What patience the man must have had!
How can we emulate that technique today? With fast drying acrylics, you might have a chance. This is one case where the Atelier Interactive paints that I love to use would be the wrong choice, since you can reopen those with water; even days after they appear to be tack dry. You don’t want that. You want an acrylic paint with a short open time that forms an impenetrable skin quickly, so that it cannot be re-opened when new paint is applied over the top. The older Winsor and Newton artist acrylics are my choice, for this application.
Start with an earthy yellow under painting, to establish the sunny glow in the sky. Wait for that to dry, and then coat the yellow layer with a clear medium, to seal the yellow pigment under a thin, transparent layer. The newer W&N acrylic mediums are a good choice, because they are very transparent, when dry, but given that you are trying to preserve the warmth of the earthy yellows, a medium that dries with a yellowish cast won’t hurt at all. It might even help.
When that has dried, you can mix a pale blue colour and work from the edges of the canvas, to the centre, leaving an area of pale, golden yellow visible and uncovered. When that has dried, paint in any clouds you need. If the scene you are painting includes water in the foreground, then paint the reflection of the sky in the water using the same technique.
When this background is dry, you are in a position to tackle the horizon and then work your way forward, to the objects in the foreground. Keep in mind that the light will be cast from behind your foreground objects, so that the shadows extend toward the viewer. With this in mind, you can create some stunning effects.
If need be, you can wait until the blue layer and clouds are dry and place another coat of clear acrylic medium over the sky. Then you can work some more white and yellow in over the top, emphasising the sunny effect in the sky and making it more dramatic and pronounced. It was clear, from observing Turner’s skies closely, that some of the thickest paint on the canvas occurs in the light, golden areas of the sky. I imagine that the white oil paint that Turner used was serving the same purpose as the clear acrylic medium I have suggested. It was providing a barrier between the blue and yellow pigments, preventing them from mixing on the canvas and producing green.
The effect, as you can see from the images, is delightful. You get a sense of a sunny sky, though you can’t necessarily pinpoint the sun itself, or even the source direction of the light. The light is golden and diffuse, fading effortlessly into sky blue. It’s a lovely way to paint a sky. Dramatic and at the same time, quite subtle.
So, next time you need to paint the sky and if you have the time and patience, freak everyone out by reaching for the whites and yellows first. Take your time. Wait for things to dry thoroughly. Delay the application of any hint of blue until quite late on in your piece. See what kind of atmospheric play of light you can create.
I’m going to give it a go.