Paint Schoodic

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Painting the coming storm

When you start to feel the patterns of nature in your bones, painting becomes less like science and more like dancing.
The colors in a good rain cloud are close in value. It's mostly color temperature that will create shape.
Last week we did “suffer a sea-change/into something rich and strange.” This was Spring, which was ushered in on great banks of fog and rain. Coincidentally, I have been painting a moody, changeable sky in my studio, since it’s been too wet to paint out-of-doors.

I’ve written about painting clouds here, and about great painters of clouds here. Right now, I am painting a great pile of dark cumulonimbus clouds. This is part of a larger canvas of the schooner American Eagle rounding Owl’s Head.

No, I’m not ready to unveil the finished work. Captain says I need more air in the sails.

It makes sense to test color modulations before you commit to them. I'm not trying to match here, but to see how the two colors interact.
Since there is no sun in my painting, the clouds are very low in tonal contrast.  This means there is little difference in value between the lightest tones and the darkest tones. That suits my purpose artistically, because the heaving sea is already busy enough.

Even on sunny days the tonal contrast in clouds is less than you might think. A brightly lit cumulus cloud contrasts starkly against a deep blue sky. Within itself, however, it doesn’t have particularly big jumps in value. Instead of relying on tonal contrast, use color temperature.

Readers will send me photos to disprove this, but there are differences between photos and what the naked eye sees. This is especially true for photos taken with devices designed to optimize digital images. In general, polarizing lenses increase contrast in clouds and skies.


Clouds usually have extremely soft edges. I’ve added a short video showing the use of a flat badger brush to make those soft edges. I’m generally a pretty direct painter. Blending clouds is almost the only time I apply a soft brush to canvas.

Last week, one of my students asked me why the band of ocean at the horizon was darker than the water closer to us. “If you can figure out a consistent pattern to the light in the sea, you’re doing better than me,” I told him. The sea is infinitely changeable. So too is the sky.

Fresh brushwork is the final step, over blended surfaces.
You learn about different skies by being out in them and drawing and painting them. At some point, you internalize your understanding. After that, you can start playing lyrically with their structure.

There is no one form that clouds must take, any more than there are specific forms that waves take, or uniformly matching snowflakes, or patterns in which petals will cascade down in an orchard on a spring breeze. Nature reveals herself in infinitely varied, controlled chaos. You must watch and learn, but when you start to feel those patterns in your bones, painting becomes more akin to dancing than to science.

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