Painting the English sky in Autumn

The thing I missed about the north was the sky.  Northern skies are deep, not as big as they are in the south, but dramatic with huge clouds.  Yes it rains alot, and it gets windy, but in Autumn, the evening clouds are exciting and theatrical.

The annoying thing about painting the sky is that a good sky, is never the same for more than a few moments.  So painting from photographs might be a good idea, but skies don’t come out well in photographs, and you don’t get the movement, or the temperature.

What I noticed recently about crepuscular rays which is dificult to pick up on a photograph, is the subtle change of colour from one side to the opposite.  This, in addition to them being translucent and having the colours of whatever is around makes them tricky things to handle, so maybe not the most pressing issue, something to think about further down the line.

At the weekend I took a large canvas to the top of Rivington pike, where I could get a clear panoramic view of the sky, and also have a little shelter from the wind.  It took me so long to make the paint that by the time I got to the top of the hill, the sky cleared within minutes and the precise clouds and light I wanted to capture, vanished.  However it wasn’t a wasted journey, I divided the support into 4 sections to work on different angles, at different times.  As the light changes constantly I couldn’t spend enough time working up layers and give the orange oil enough time to evaporate between the staining layer and the greasy layer.   I think I will be able to work on the same canvas again in similar conditions as the basic colours and atmosphere are in place but nothing definite.  I found that I didn’t need to make quite so many different colours and only ended up using a handful.  I was getting low on yellow ochre pigment so didn’t make any, not realising that this was probably the most essential colour.  Today 1kilo of yellow ochre arrived in the post, it cost £9.62 from Cornelsen and should last me a fairly long time.

The last batch of yellow ochre was very grainy and had a sandy texture.  I mullered this before grinding it with the oil.  It did give a better texture, but I used acetone as a lubricant, because it doesn’t seem to affect the pigment, and evaporates quickly, however I think ethanol would work better, as not all the acetone had evaporated when I made the paint leaving me with a deceptive oil – pigment ratio, and so the paint dried quicker than expected.

The other problematic colour needed for the sky is blue.  Cerrulean gives a nice bright sky colour, but is an absolute pain to make paint from – might be worth using heat bodied oil, or an oil and wax mixture.  Ultramarine, after making it so often is now not so problematic, but I am concerned about how it behaves with water and whether it should be ground for longer than seems to be ok.  Apparently Theophilus talks about using lye with it, but I haven’t come across that and don’t fancy using lye.  Prussian blue, is very strong, and gets everywhere, I’m fortunate to have a very wide mouthed jar and can just about keep on top of it without turning into a smurf, as long as it isn’t windy.  The prussian blue mixed with white, over the ultramarine, gives a satisfying bright sky blue, that is distinctive from the blue in the clouds providing that no prussian blue is in the clouds until the glazing stages.


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