Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sky Panels

We take it for granted that all landscape painting in oil should be undertaken “alla prima,” that is, starting with a blank canvas and completing the entire statement in one session, keeping all the adjacent areas wet together. Below is a tree that I painted in this way.

Alla prima is a great way to work if you want a soft, painterly handling, but it can be a problem if you want to describe intricate details against a light sky, because the wet paint of the sky interferes with the dark strokes that you want to place on top.

Earlier painters generally didn’t work alla prima, at least not in the studio. Painters before the advent of Impressionism would typically paint a sky first, let it dry, and then paint the trees and other foreground elements over dry passages.

I have experimented with applying this idea to plein air painting and I can recommend it to you as an option. The tree study above was done in this way. It’s useful in situations where your chief interest is in the complex middle-ground tracery: road signs, telephone poles, sailing ships, trees, or intricate cloud formations.

The cloud study (detail, below) which I showed in an earlier post, was painted over a cloud-free sky panel.

Since clear skies are fairly standard and predictable, you can prepare a set of “sky panels” a few days in advance of an outdoor painting session. Cover the sky panel with a typical gradation of sky-colored pigments, and let it dry completely.

Later in the field you can rub the surface with a thin layer of oil painting medium to make it receptive. You can then paint the foreground details of trees or foliage without any danger of the sky color lifting up and mixing with the dark colors of the branches or leaves.

Tomorrow: L’Art Pompier


Anonymous said...


do you paint and or draw everyday? how many paintings would you say you produce a year?

just curious, keep up the great work and blog.


Anonymous said...

I absolutely love your blog. You have soo much great information everyday. I was reading over your overcast light entries and was wondering if you have any tips for modeling the form in overcast compared to direct sunlight. Like how the hardness of the edges change and how it effects value changes. What percent difference would the value be I guess is my question.

Ezra said...


Great Idea! I coated a panel this morning to try out this method. Phenomenal sketches!

I was wondering if in a future blog you might show us how you store and catalog all of your sketches for studio use. I've been trying to organize my own.


Anonymous said...

Big E: No, I honestly don't paint every day, because of demands for writing, touring, and just goofing off. I tend to get into phases where I sketch like a maniac for a while and then slack off. A lot of the sketches I've been showing are ones I did a while ago.

Pennington: The whole approach to modeling form for overcast light is different than the classic "light-halftone-shadow- reflected light" formulas that makes sense in direct light. In a nutshell, planes get darker as they face more downward; there's no shadow edge; and the range of values is closer.

Ezra: No system, really, but since most of my plein air paintings are 8x10 inches, they fit into standard plastic page protectors, and then can go in a file box. I also try to remember to write the date and the place on the back, because otherwise I'll forget later.

Anonymous said...

I learn more from just one of your posts than I did in years of subpar art lessons. You keep teaching me to SEE differently, and it's been helping me better appreciate fine art and improve my own. Keep up the great work!

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Dana. I'm glad you're finding the blog useful. I'm learning by doing these posts, too.