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How To Paint Sky Seen Through Foliage

Updated on March 6, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie:an artist believing in the power of positive thinking, she paints images intended to bring joy the viewer and loves to share art tips.

How do you paint those areas of light that break through a tree in a way that they look natural and believable? Skyholes 101.
How do you paint those areas of light that break through a tree in a way that they look natural and believable? Skyholes 101. | Source

Sky Holes. What Are They?

Sky holes are simply the negative spaces we see in the structure of the tree. They occur where there is a break in the foliage, often alongside the trunks and branches.

They are areas of light that break through a tree.

Sky holes are not always sky color. These 'holes' are the color of whatever is behind the tree (a bit darker value though) this could be sky but it might be other trees, mountains, water.

Elements that Make Painted Sky Holes Believable

Placement - Where you choose to paint the sky holes inside trees.

Variety – Sky holes are irregular and organic, not all the same or equally spaced.

Color – It’s usually duller than the color surrounding the tree.

Value – It’s darker than the sky.

Temperature – The color of the sky holes is cooler than the color of the surrounding sky.

The sky holes serve as negative space that helps the viewer define the structure of the tree.
The sky holes serve as negative space that helps the viewer define the structure of the tree. | Source

Where to Place the Sky Holes?

The trick to paint believable sky holes is in their placement.

If you observe trees around you, you’ll notice that sky holes are usually in between masses of leaves.

Look at the structure of the tree you are painting, and find those voluminous areas. Right in between the leafy areas it’s where you put the sky holes.

As always, “less is more.” A few strategically placed sky holes will depict the character of the tree far better than reproducing every one.

With a few well placed sky holes John Constable rendered the structure of these trees. The Cornfield - 1826, John Constable.
With a few well placed sky holes John Constable rendered the structure of these trees. The Cornfield - 1826, John Constable. | Source

Before Starting Painting Sky Holes

Stop: slow down and take your time. Rushing leads to messy sky holes that don't always make sense.

  • Squint: Squinting simplifies your reference tree and allows the light areas (the sky holes) to become more obvious. Look where they occur and what shape they are. They are not always round holes or squiggles.
  • Search: Find the sky holes and put them in. Place them carefully. Try not to rush!
  • Avoid squiggles, circles or ornaments. Ornaments occur when the sky hole value is too light or the edges are all too sharp. The marks look stuck on the tree rather than breaks in the foliage. It is also advisable to keep at least one edge of the sky hole soft to replicate the refraction of light as it fights its way through the tree.
    When it comes to the sky holes it is important to note that they are rarely the same pastel as the sky around the tree. If you paint the holes the same pastel color as the sky around, they’ll appear too light, ultimately appearing like Christmas lights.

How About You?

Do you find painting sky holes challenging?

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Landscape with Viaduct, 1885-1887, Paul Cezanne
Landscape with Viaduct, 1885-1887, Paul Cezanne | Source

DDC: Darker, Duller, Cooler

You cannot use the same color in the holes as you have used to paint the background around the tree.

In between the darker areas of the trees they would look too bright in comparison

It needs to be Darker, Duller, Cooler (DDC).

The reason why the sky holes require a slightly different paint color is due to the fact that what we see as holes - the spaces between the leaves and branches where the sky shows through - do not always show a clear view of the sky. There are small branches and leaves within these spaces that may not be apparent with the naked eye, and they screen the light passing through. As this occurs, its intensity in both value and color are weakened.

The smaller the hole, the more small branches and leaves are in the way. The smaller holes should be painted a bit darker, duller, and cooler than the bigger holes.

Simultaneous Contrast

Simultaneous contrast refers to how we perceive a color differently in relation to the colors surrounding it.

Due to simultaneous contrast, the same color placed around the tree appears lighter when isolated within the trees form. It’s a visual phenomenon.

The Basin at Argenteuil,  	circa 1872, Claude Monet
The Basin at Argenteuil, circa 1872, Claude Monet | Source

Light Diffraction

Because the light coming through a sky hole is passing through a reduced aperture, it loses linearity of the light waves, and results in appearing less bright than the sky itself. It is called diffraction.

I don't consider myself a master artist, but what I know I enjoy sharing with others. I wrote this article hoping that it will help beginner artists in their creative process, not because I believe I “know” how to paint.

I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )

© 2016 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 14 months ago from Ohio

      Hi BlossomSB, what a great story you shared! It tells very well the struggles of being an artist. : )

      Glad to hear my writing provided some useful tips, that's exactly why I am writing hubs: to share with others what I learn the hard way, hoping that it will help painters find shortcuts and ease the struggle. : )

      Thanks a lot for sharing your experience! Happy painting!

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 14 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thank you for that great explanation. Our artists' group had a competition recently; it had to be of a landscape, and as I had been invited to a wedding about 4 hours' drive away, I took my camera and got some good shots of the Grampians (the ones in Victoria, Australia). It was fun painting it and I was quite happy as I went along with the gardens, fences, the mountains and the trunk of an old gum-tree. However, the leaves and holes were another matter! I gave up and painted from a photo I'd taken a few years ago of a chasm in Central Australia - all rocks and rich colour with not a tree in sight! Still didn't win, but I was much happier with the result. I really needed those tips, so again - thank you!

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