The Emotional Sky

During the pandemic, my art changed completely. I painted symbolic images about the pandemic. I painted a few desolate landscapes and a couple of abstracts. Then I laid fallow for a bit, unsure of what came next. But I have found it: I am painting skies.

At a workshop with Liz Haywood-Sullivan, she said, “The sky is the most emotional part of the landscape.” It’s true, the sky can be extraordinarily expressive. It conveys everything from tranquility to terror.

You would think that skies would be easy to paint. After all, no one knows what a particular configuration of clouds looks like, so it’s certainly not a matter of accuracy. And a peaceful sky is not too hard to paint: you choose color gradations, a light source, and blend carefully. But a dramatic sky is another matter. In painting clouds, I am always thinking about making them look cloud-like, and you might be amazed at how often I struggle with that. Also, I am continually assessing the pattern of the clouds. It’s almost a form of abstract painting, which is also not as easy as I used to imagine. Composition is critical with a cloudy sky (or a sunrise/sunset), so I rearrange them or change their shape. Thinking purely in terms of composition and shape without reference to familiar objects is definitely abstract painting.

Clouds are more than shapes, though, they are carriers of light. I think this is what I find most compelling, and also most challenging. Every landscape painting needs consideration of the source of the light. Clouds, though, hold the light in complicated ways, and the painting won’t work until I figure that out.

Here is a painting I did just as the country was transitioning to the Biden presidency and just as vaccines were becoming available. What does this sky say to you?

“First Light,” 16″ x 20″

Here’s a recent sunrise photo, although I titled it as if it were sunset. Do you see the balance between the light and dark areas? The pattern of the salmon-colored clouds and the blue clouds? My goal was to bring the eye back and forth across the painting, from the darkest blue clouds in the upper left, across and down the angle of the salmon-colored clouds, and finally to the mist between the hills.

“A Graceful Ending,” 11″ x 14″

And finally, a recent painting that pushes the abstract aspect of the sky. Here there is no reference at all to the landscape per se. I have abandoned realistic color altogether and made a turquoise cloud against a dark red sky. I love this painting, and it hangs over my desk at home.

“Upswept,” 14 1/2″ x 17″

This, to me, is pure feeling.

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3 Responses to The Emotional Sky

  1. Michele j Clark says:

    The three as a group capture the ongoing, eternal really, variousness of the sky and how I feel now, from one day to the next, its variousness.

  2. Susan Bettmann says:

    I love “Upswept,” and this topic. The only artist quote I know is from Winslow Homer, who said, “Never paint a sky blue.”


    Ps. I just finished The Madness of Crowds and handed it on to Cynthia. What did you think of it? Cynthia said Penny’s next book is co-written with Hillary Clinton! Fancy way of saying ghost-written.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Frank Peterson says:

    First Light
    I see the promise of a new day. Watching the sun come up with a cup of coffee.

    A Graceful Ending.
    The beauty of a sunset with valley fog setting in. Calm and quiet. All is good.

    A coast line with clouds and ocean.

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