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Tips on How To Paint Sky Behind Trees, or "Sky Holes"

Updated on December 22, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

How do you paint areas of sky seen through a tree so that they look natural and believable? Do you paint sky or branches first? Learn how foliage and thin branches change the color of the sky
How do you paint areas of sky seen through a tree so that they look natural and believable? Do you paint sky or branches first? Learn how foliage and thin branches change the color of the sky | 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.

Even if technically what you see are patches of the sky, you can't paint them the same color as the sky above.

Elements that Make Painted Sky Holes Believable

  1. Placement - Where you choose to paint the sky holes inside trees.
  2. Variety – Sky holes are irregular and organic, not all the same or equally spaced.
  3. Color – It’s usually duller than the color surrounding the tree.
  4. Value – It’s darker than the sky.
  5. Temperature – The color of the sky holes is cooler than the color of the surrounding sky.

Use sky holes as negative space to help the viewer define the structure of the tree.
Use sky holes as negative space to help the viewer define the structure of the tree. | Source

Where to Paint the Sky Between Branches

The trick to painting 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 to Paint the Globs of Sky on the Tree

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". It is 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. Keep the shapes organic and varied. Avoid squiggles or perfectly geometric shapes.
    The "ornament" effect occurs 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.

How About You?

Do you find painting sky holes challenging?

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

Rule to Adjust Sky Color: Make it Darker, Duller, and Cooler (DDC)

You cannot use the same paint color that you use for the sky around the tree, to render the sky between foliage.

If you paint the holes the same pastel color as the sky around, they’ll appear too light, ultimately appearing like Christmas lights.

In between the darker areas of the trees, the pure sky color 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 to the naked eye, but act as screen for the light that comes through. As this occurs, the intensity of the light, both in value and color, is weakened.

The smaller the hole, the more small branches and leaves are filtering the light. To visualize the difference, imagine looking through a glass window (the big hole) and a screened window (the small hole).

The sky seen through the screen should be painted a bit darker, duller, and cooler than the clear sky.

Do You Paint Sky or Branches First?

There's no right or wrong approach on what to paint first. In general, I like to work from background to foreground, which means that I like to paint the sky first, thinly, and then paint the tree branches on top.

Trees over sky don't form sharp edges. The leaves and the small branches create lost and soft edges. When the paint is still wet, it's easier to blend the edges and keep them soft.

You can paint the area where tree and sky meets by mixing some sky color with the tree color, or scumbling.

Simultaneous Contrast

Every color's appearance changes i relations to the colors next to it.

We refer to this different perception of a color in relation to the colors surrounding it as simultaneous contrast.

Due to simultaneous contrast, if we paint both sky and holes the same color, the color placed in the holes, surrounded by darker colors of the tree, will look much lighter in comparison. 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.

Disclaimer

I don't consider myself a master artist, but I enjoy sharing with others what I know. 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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    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

      Great tips on technique and style for this particular application. I enjoyed reading this and the examples were well chosen.

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 22 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 22 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!