“The air moves like a river and carries the clouds with it; just as running water carries all the things that float upon it.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
Artists throughout the centuries have known how important a role the sky plays in their paintings. When we think of some artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Giambattista Tiepolo and Claude Monet, often it is their depiction of clouds and storms that stays with us. Some artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and John Constable spent countless hours studying the movement and formation of clouds.
Painting clouds in watercolour is a fun and informative way for one to get a feel for the medium. Clouds being big balls of water vapour, watercolour is the perfect medium to convey all different shapes, sizes and colours of clouds. When painting clouds I tend to consider four main elements: shape, edges, direction, and tone.
Here is a summary of the techniques and approaches when you are painting a cloud and cloudscapes.
Of course we know that clouds can take on all shapes and sizes. However, imagine for a moment a cloud that is right above you vs a cloud that’s way out in the distance.
I suppose you would picture a much larger, rounder shape for the cloud above you while the cloud in the distance is much thinner and flatter. As clouds go back in space they get more and more parallel with the horizon (eye-level). Here’s a drawing to illustrate this:
Simply by compressing the cloud form so it’s flatter, we get a sense of distance and depth.
What about the actual form of a cloud and how can we model the form with shading? I tend to approach the shadows on a cloud depending on its shape. If I’m painting cumulus clouds, which are usually round and fluffy like cotton balls, I’ll approach the modelling much like I would a sphere, with gradual movements from light to shadow:
Stratus clouds are flatter and usually lower as they tend to be dense. I’ll normally paint them pretty flat with highlights at the top and shadows on the bottom:
Cirrus clouds are those wispy clouds that might almost look like a spray of white in the blue sky. I will paint these wet-in-wet to achieve those soft diffused edges (more on this below):
“Old Abbey in Ballinskelligs,” 2015
There can also be clouds that are a composite of these different types.
When painting the shape of the clouds it can be even more helpful to think of the shape around the clouds in the sky. This brings us to the idea of edges.
Watercolour painting is all about the play of edges, whether they be hard and crisp, soft and blurred, or completely diffused and gradated. These edges are often dependent on how dry or wet your paper is and how much water and colour are on your brush. Here are a few tips when thinking about the edges while painting clouds.
Painting a wet-on-dry cloud means painting with a wet brush around the shape of your cloud on dry paper. If you are painting a white cloud in a blue sky, what you’re actually painting is the sky itself.
For this reason, try not to outline your cloud and then go back to it after the line is dry because there will usually be a mark of the line showing through. Instead, consider painting the sky as one tonal form behind the cloud:
Painting wet on dry can often lead to clouds that have very clear edges around the form. In case you would like to have softer edges, you might want to consider using other techniques.
One approach, which will lend to softer edges, is painting a cloud wet-on-wet. This is where you wet the area on the paper (with either a clean brush and water, or a spray bottle) where you want your sky and clouds to be and you paint around the shape of the cloud the same way you would if it were wet-on-dry.
Depending on how saturated the paper is you could either get a slightly soft edge or a very diffused edge:
Painting long strokes wet-in-wet is also an effective way to paint wispy cirrus clouds:
Another effective way to paint a cloud is to actually just lift off the wet paint from your paper with a soft material such as a paper towel or a rag. Read here to learn about different lifting techniques.
The paint will be removed from the paper surface leaving a few remaining textures and soft edges that can very very evocative of a cloud form:
If you have ever laid on your back and looked up at the sky you know that clouds are always in movement. Conveying the direction of the clouds is another important factor when painting your skies and cloudscapes. The sweep and movement of the clouds can say a lot about the overall feeling in your painting, whether it is a calm and still day or dark and stormy.
Horizontal lines and clouds tend to suggest a more calm and slow movement across the painting. If you want to convert this type of feeling in your piece, I would suggest laying out your painting horizontally (with arrows showing main direction of the cloud movement):
If you want to show more of a sense of distance and depth, then you could use receding arcs into your picture plane. Much like the lines get flatter as they approach the horizon line, the receding arcs gradually have less of an arc shape as the they near the horizon as well:
Similar to the receding arcs are the receding diagonals, where you launch your lines from a fixed point. I often use these direction lines when painting cirrus clouds wet in wet:
Of course, with clouds usually comes rain. The direction of the clouds can play a major role in the type of weather effects you want to display. For example, a downward movement in the clouds can give a sense of heavy dense downpour of rain:
Whereas a spiralling direction into the painting could give the impression of a violent, active storm:
For painting storm clouds, spraying the paper first with a spray bottle and dropping colour into the spray is a helpful way to get movement and variety in the shapes of the clouds:
Tone & Color
Of course clouds aren’t always bright white. Considering what type of tone you set your cloud can help to emphasise the atmosphere and mood of your piece. Clouds can be both the brightest parts of your painting as well as the darkest.
Depending on the time of day and the angle of the light you can have vivid, saturated colours reflected off your clouds, or perhaps very subdued darks. (Our cold press sketchbooks have the perfect size and texture to bring some extra life to your landscape paintings!)
Here are some ideas as to what the tone and colour of the clouds sets the mood for your painting.
Light, low contrast clouds:
“Horse Island,” 2015
Clouds at Sunset:
“Sunset Over Aegean,” 2020
Here is a quick, beginner-friendly guide on tonal values and contrast if you want to learn more.
Seeing how much you can do with your cloudscape is a fun way to explore the infinite possibilities within the medium of watercolour. Whether they have light, fluffy cumulus clouds or dark, active storm clouds, the skies in your paintings can help carry a deeper message to your creation. Like countless artists throughout history, playing around with clouds is a great exercise, and they are an endlessly fascinating subject to paint.