Looking to the Heavens


“Living in the Texas Panhandle, we certainly have sky in abundance,” says Bethany Fields. “The views high on the flat prairie are a seamless low horizon in a complete 360-degree circle. It’s like being on the ocean, except our ocean is grass and the clouds roll by in waves. When I’m not seeking to paint trees (something hard to find unless you’re nearby in beautiful Palo Duro Canyon), I’m painting skies and clouds. I love to increase drama by composing my paintings with low horizon lines. This gives the clouds plenty of upward reach and drama. The skies here are famously blue with beautiful sunrises and sunsets, mostly due to the amount of dust in the air from our equally famous wind. I haven’t met a cloud I didn’t love — except one that has hail in it!

“Llano” (pastel, 12 1/2 9 1/2 in.)

“In particular, our cumulonimbus clouds are incredible, and it’s breathtaking to watch a thunderstorm from miles away. We don’t have much “atmosphere” in regard to water vapor or fog; it’s much too dry on the arid plains. I remember first hearing about atmospheric perspective years ago. An artist said, “Look at your distant mountains and trees and see how the colors and values shift.” I looked around; we have no distant mountains or trees! It’s all grass and sky. We look up for our inspiration. Our skies are generally very blue with high chroma and lots of light bouncing around to make the clouds really glow.

“Autumn Light” (pastel and watercolor, 10 x 8 in.)

“Working in pastel allows me to paint the clouds quickly before they scurry away with the wind. I don’t have to mix paint, and my setup is very fast so I can begin as soon as my paper is positioned. These fast studies are wonderful for capturing moving clouds and light and shadow. The major challenge, of course, is rain. Fortunately, I can see the rain clouds from miles away, which allows me some time to find shelter.

“I work almost exclusively on sanded papers, which I tone myself with isopropyl alcohol or watercolor, or use a pre-made toned surface. My technique changes a bit depending on the time of day. For early or late glowing light, I start with a warm surface (usually golds or peaches), which helps me to build the warm colors in the clouds and sky. I use a lot of negative painting marks, carving into the toned surface with my sky color. I don’t like to layer too much pastel as it gets chalky. I want my paintings to breathe.

“From the High Road” (pastel, 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.)

“For mid-morning clear light, I paint in sky colors first, carving and building the layers of the cloud formations. Having great sets of blue and violet pastels helps immensely. I rarely, if ever, use pure white pastel. Much of the nuance of my colors is built by varying values of blue, purple, peach, and warm yellow. I avoid gray pastels as well. In general, I like to interpret and push color a little.

“The Last Light” (pastel, 8 x 12 in.)

“I haven’t always painted en plein air and still paint in my home studio the majority of the time, mostly due to wind (not to mention rattlesnake and tarantula encounters!). However, bringing ideas and palettes from the outdoors in has helped my technique and my paintings mature. I look forward to every session chasing the clouds. One of the greatest gifts of being an artist is having the presence of mind to slow down and look around with gratitude and wonder. Bringing that sense of peace to the easel is a constant meditation. I take a deep breath, calming any panic or anxious thoughts. I center myself and dive in. If it doesn’t work, it was just a piece of paper and a few moments spent looking up. Enjoy. There is always tomorrow.”

In her 5 Step Pastel Painting video workshop, Jill Stefani Wagner demonstrates how to paint realistic skies during a sunset, create paintings that radiate with an inner light, and much more.

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PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


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