How to Paint Mackrel Skies

Learning how to paint a dramatic sky, such as a mackerel sky, or alto cumulus clouds at sunrise within this demonstration will contribute to an evocative landscape painting. Sensitive observation is all that is required for an effective painting of skies.


Painting an Altocumulus Sky


Since altocumulus clouds are usually slow moving, the artist may wish to try painting them from life, but its intricate structure could pose a challenge. Painting such a dramatic sky from a photograph is perhaps more practical. The secret to painting clouds is to simplify its formation into basic tonal areas.

Painting Cloud Formations


A mackerel sky contains the most bizarre colours when viewed at sunrise or sunset, as the oblique sunlight skids across the surface of the cloud surface. For this reason, the artist must never discount a colour mixture when painting a mackerel sky. Similarly, contrasting tones can often be seen within the cloud structure.

Art Materials Required

  1. A photograph of altocumulus clouds
  2. Sizes 3 and 6 round sable brushes
  3. 12 x 16 inch (30.5. x 40.5cm) textured oil sketching paper
  4. Oil colours in the following pigments: titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber, pthalo blue, ultramarine and permanent rose
  5. An old china plate for a palette
  6. Backing board on which to rest the paper
  7. Soft pencil
  8. Eraser

Demonstration on Painting a Dramatic Sky


Employing a composition with a low horizon will allow the artist to concentrate upon painting the sky. In this case, a composition consisting of rooftops low down on the painting surface offered contrasts in form. Once the skyline had been roughly sketched, the palest colours were applied. This consisted of titanium and a hint of burnt sienna. Half closing the eyes will simplify tonal areas.


Next, the mid tones were applied by darkening the colour mix with a little ultramarine. Finally, with a thin sable, the darkest areas were applied with yet more ultramarine. A little permanent rose was introduced nearer the horizon.


Tips on Painting Convincing Skies


The secret to painting realistic clouds is to bear in mind that like skin tones, the smallest variation in tone is required to portray form. In this case, the tiniest dab of ultramarine was added to the cloud mixture and dabbed onto the dark areas at the horizon. White was added to the horizon, as clouds often appear paler near the horizon than at the zenith.


Colour Blending


The final touches were supplied by soft brushing over selected areas of the sky to rid of any jarring brushmarks. A clean soft sable was used to knit together the different areas of colour and tone to give the painting coherence. Finally, the blue sky was expressed by dabbing mixture of pthalo blue and white onto selected areas.


The Colour of Clouds


Once the buildings in the foreground had been blocked in with a mixture of permanent rose, ultramarine and varying amounts of burnt umber, the sky will make more sense. A little tonal adjustment is often required at this point, to ensure the sky does not appear washed out in comparison to the foreground.


An Oil Sketch of Clouds


Altocumulus is a complex cloud formation that makes working from a photograph necessary. Simplifying the scene into basic tonal areas will make the challenge easier, in this case, dark, mid-tone, pale and highlights. Half closing the eyes will help the artist judge the tonal balances within the clouds more accurately and result in an effective painting of mackerel skies.


This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010