Appalachian Sky

The current version of this painting…

I wanted to capture the feel of standing on the balcony and looking out over the mountains in Banner Elk, North Carolina over our Fourth of July vacation.


At first, I painted the scene from our balcony and tried to frame the valley with the trees in the foreground. I tried to “zoom in” on the valley, framing it with the nearby trees. Now that I look back at photos, I think this was my first mistake. The composition feels scattered and unfocused when I include the valley and just part of the nearby trees. It’s a much more interesting composition if I zoom out, and include more of the foreground trees, or if I zoom in and ignore the foreground trees. By trying to paint the valley, framed by the foreground trees, I create an unpleasant tension in focal points, and it flattens the whole composition making it dull and boring. This painting needs to pick one – be about the mountains, or be about the trees. It can’t be about both.

Neither here nor there.
This composition is better, but it’s less about the mountains, and more about the trees in the foreground.
Here’s my first attempt, which I didn’t bother to finish.

My first attempt tried to paint the nearby trees, and the mountains, and the sky, and the farms in the valley. This composition can’t make up it’s mind what it’s about. It’s trying to be everything, so it’s nothing but an unpleasant argument.


My second attempt was gross as well. I tried to focus less on the buildings in the valley, and reduced the impact of the sky, and halfway through I realized it wasn’t going to work, so I just swashed a cloth across the whole thing. The composition isn’t this, isn’t that, isn’t worth looking at.

Clouds and Skyscapes

After the second failed painting, I decided to practice the sky – because the more I sat there on the balcony, the more I was interested in the sky, and the less interested I was in the mountains. I also saw this as an opportunity for me to pracitce painting skies. I’ve gotten maybe a little lazy painting skies lately by just letting the pigments settle and calling it done. For the most part, this is ok, because my paintings are rarely about the sky. But in this case, I wanted the cloud cover to help convey a sense of space and perspective because the mountains themselves tend to just look like rows of hills, one behind the other.

I won’t bother writing about each one of these. This is equal to one full sheet of paper cut into 16 sections. I did learn quite a bit by doing this though.

  1. The clouds in the sky need some shadowing, otherwise they just feel like a gimmick.
  2. The clouds need warm and cool shadows.
  3. If the shadows are lighter in value than the sky, they feel light and airy. If the shadows are a darker value than the sky, it feels stormy.
  4. Perspective is very important. More than just having the shadows thicker at the top, and thinner at the horizon, I need to actually consider the perspective and shape of the shadows if they are going to be an integral part of the composition.
  5. If the shadows are not going to be an integral part of the composiition, then it’s acceptable for them to sit in the sky in a single plane, as that helps keep the sky in the background.

I found that the following seemed to work best for painting the clouds:

  1. Paint a clean wash of water across the sky, leaving some of the paper dry – these portions will be the brightest parts of the clouds.
  2. Add blue to the clean water, darker at the top. Use Indie Blue and Phthalo blue for a smooth sky – if I want to add interest, Cerulean or Ultra Marine Blue tend to granulate and can be interesting – but the granulation does bring the sky forward a bit too much.
  3. Add some raw umber to the blue sky color, and water it down a LOT on the palette. Then dab this into the underside of the clouds in a few places. Let it blend into the sky color. Don’t paint the entire underside of the clouds this way, just a few spots to get some lost edges.
  4. Let that dry.
  5. Spray the sky with fat drops of water.
  6. Dab very light grey into the undersides of the clouds again. Let it spider out a bit here and there, and allow some crisp edges.
  7. Add just a few slashes of darker grey – but still lighter in value than the deepest part of the sky.

Quarter-Sheet Drafts

After practicing on 1\16th sheets, I tried another practice run on a quarter sheet. It’s important for me to practice on a small scale and a large scale. Practicing on 1/16th sheets is economical, and fast, but because I can’t scale down the surface tension of water – I have to know that some of the effects I get at a small scale will appear different on a larger scale. On a small scale, a drop of pigment might be enough to create a cloud. On a larger scale, I need large brushstrokes to accomplish the same thing. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there is a lot to it. When I’m working on a small scale, the water and the paper do most of the work. As I move to larger scales, in order to get the same effect, I need more moisture. Because watercolor has so much to do with moisture content, practicing on a small scale won’t necessarily translate to a larger scale. All that to say – I can’t go right from small scale practice paintings into a large scale painting. I need to practice a few times at a large scale as well before I try to make a finished painting.

In this first large-scale draft, I overworked the top of the sky. I also didn’t include enough variation in the mountains – and everything feels like it’s the same distance away. There is no perspective, no atmosphere, no depth, no interest.

In my second attempt, I used Indie Blue and Raw Umber – which removed a lot of the granulation in the sky. I over did it on leaving white places in the sky near the top of the painting, and as a result it looks like a polka-dotted field of tiny clouds. The larger clouds nearer the horizon invert the perspective, and make the whole thing confusing. The mountains are much more interesting – the grey is very close to the color I want to use for distant mountains, and the lost edges work well.

In the next attempt, I tried to exaggerate the perspective of the couds a bit more. The shadowed portions of the clouds ended up being too heavy, and it feels very stormy as a result. The lost edges where the sky meets the mountains don’t work because the shadow of the clouds is huge on the left there. I should have tiny clouds at the horizon, but in this image the clouds at the mountain are gigantic – and the whole sky is flat. The mountains in the foreground are too dark and brooding. The whole thing looks much more ominous than I’m after.

For the next large scale draft, I decided to carefully plan out the perspective of the sky. I drew perspective lines across the sky using two-point perspective with focal points off the edge of the paper. This helped me immensely in designing the shape of the undersides of the clouds. Just having that mesh frame drawn in the sky was enough to remind me as I painted of the need to keep perspective while painting. Unfortunately, the shadows were too dark on the clouds. When I went to paint the mountians, I used some sprayed water to add texture – I like the effect, but I think it would be better to rely on granulation for distant mountains, and the spray for mountiains in the foreground.


PKpuffin on Reddit asked for more information about how I used two-point perspective to create the clouds. First, here is a photo of the sketch before I painted. It’s done with an H4 pencil, so it’s really hard to photograph. I tried to noodle with the values and curves – this is the best I could do.

To create the sketch, I started by drawing a horizon line (orange), and adding two convergence points on the horizon (cyan and magenta).

Then, I drew lines from the convergence points out across the sky, to draw a perspective mesh. (I’m sure there’s a real name for this, but I don’t know what it is.)

I then thought of the bottoms of the clouds like the bottoms of boxes in the sky. I used the perspective mesh to help map out these shapes. (I didn’t draw these boxes, but they were what I thought about while I drew the cloud shapes.)

I then imagined vertical lines coming up from each corner, and used the perspective mesh to draw the planes of the clouds. (Again, I didn’t draw these planes, but it’s what I thought about while I drew the cloud shapes.

Finally, here is a modified version of the sketch. You can see how the cloud shapes are just irregular wobbly lines around the boxy shapes that I was thinking about.

Current Finished Painting

And so we arrive at the current version. For this, I relied on Indie Blue in the sky, I used very light grey for the shadowed parts of the clouds. I drew perspective lines in the sky to keep me oriented. I tried to make the distant mountains very grey, and rely on granulation to provide the only hint of detail on the far mountains. On the mid-ground mountains’ I tried to use warmer tones to bring them forward a bit, and sprayed water into damp paper to create blooms, which I rely on for the mid-ground details. For the mountains in the foreground, I used much darker colors, and cooler shadows than the mountains in the foreground. And, instead of relying on water or granulation for details, I tried to rely on gesture (or brushwork).

I think this result is the best of the versions I’ve created so far – but I think it needs some shadows on the mountains. And, I think the line in the sky should create more of an S-Curve, right now it pretty much cuts the sky directly in half, I need a diagonal of some sort there to help lead the eye into the horizon. The mountains I like. I am glad that I didn’t try to go nuts with detail, and the warmth of the mid-ground mountains works well, as does the sharp silhouettes of the trees in the foreground. Unfortunately, the composition itself feels very formulaic and cliche.

Oops. Oh well – i’m learning.