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How to Paint a Rainy Day

  • by Simon Frisby

They say “April showers bring May flowers”, but what do you do during those rainy days?

While it can be seen as a gloomy day, why not turn that around and start painting it instead? It’s easier than it looks, so let’s break out those watercolour paints and have some fun!

Quick Sketch

First things first are to make sure you’re in a dry space. It might be tempting to do some Plein Air painting to experiment with painting in different weather conditions, but dry watercolour paint can always be reactivated with just a little water, which won’t be a good combination along with your watercolour paper.

If you’re in a covered area though, and if it’s not too windy, it could work. Just be careful not to drop anything into the puddles or drain!

The next step is to do a quick sketch of your scene. Whether it’s done lightly with a pencil; or with diluted watercolour paint, try not to do anything in too much of a hard outline, as the rain and humidity will create a slightly blurry effect, even on objects relatively closer to you.

Tip: The ground will add a lot to your “rainy day” effect, as puddles on the ground will reflect objects like a pool of water does. So make sure to include these, especially if there’s something on top of a puddle! You can sketch them if you want, or leave them out. 

When you’re finished with your sketch, make sure that you have all your painting materials prepped before moving to the painting step.

Also, it will help to have a large container or two of water – you’ll need more than usual for this rainy day!

Bonus tip: To help sell on that wet weather, add some people holding umbrellas and/or wearing raincoats, and if there are any light sources such as lampposts or cars, have them be lit to compensate for the overcast weather. I also recommend taping your paper down with artist’s or masking tape, as the next step requires using quite a lot of water.

Wet Painting for a Wet Day

If you’ve practised the “wet-in-wet” technique before, you’ll be familiar with this next part, because it’s the technique we need to use to get smooth colour blends.

This is especially useful for getting a good background rainy effect, as the distance coupled with rain will create a greater blur than normal.

To achieve this, wet the entire paper with clean water and use a large round brush to block in the basic colours for everything while the paper is still wet, then paint the background first before switching to the foreground.

Take note that rainy days are cloudy days too- so everything will have a darker overcast. I recommend adding a touch of Payne’s Grey to all your shadows for this, and even to some mid-tones, as it brings out the stormy atmosphere.

Once you have your first layer down, you can continue building up layers as you would with any other painting, but keep the objects in the background blurry.

You can do this by rewetting your paper when it gets too dry, or wetting just the edges of your paint to smooth them out.

Just make sure to keep any light sources bright, and to reflect these light sources on the ground to indicate the presence of puddles.

Tip: While your paper is supposed to be wet, try not to drown your paper. This is a sure-fire way to get unwanted “blooming” in your paint or to cause too much actual puddling on your painting. Also, if you do end up rewetting already painted areas, try to be as gentle with your brushstrokes as possible to prevent paint from being removed from previous layers.

Light Sources and Puddles

Some extra details to really sell the “rainy” look would be to preserve your light sources (as mentioned before).

Optionally, you can add them back later using white gouache paint, but depending on the light’s colour, you might need to add a ring of this colour around the lightbulb.

Don’t forget to add a trailing reflection on the wet surface that matches the light’s colour.

These shiny trails also show that the ground is wet too, especially when paired with all the other reflections. This includes painting the reflections of anything that’s directly on top of the ground, such as people, buildings, lampposts, etc.

This will be similar to painting reflections in bodies of water, only the reflections are almost a mirror of reality with minimal rippling.

Bonus tip: You can adjust the intensity of the rain by adjusting how much rippling occurs in the puddles, and how much mist is created from the rain hitting different surfaces. More rippling can be done by distorting and blurring the reflections in the puddles more, while a misty effect can be created by using a clean tissue or paintbrush to lift out the paint in the misty area. Everything becomes blurrier in heavier rain too, so you’ll need to tweak your painting accordingly.

Come Again Another Day

Adjust the hues and values of your painting as needed, and make sure to keep track of where your lights and shadows should be.

And while the whole painting may be mistier or blurrier from the rain effect, it’s fine to preserve a few details – especially in the foreground – for a greater sense of depth.

As a final touch, you can even add a fine spray of white gouache paint for an even greater mist effect! You can do this by running a thumb over the bristles of an old toothbrush that has been dipped in paint.

If it’s your first time though, I recommend keeping it simple with the puddles and the blurred areas and focusing more on the values than on the smaller details.

And if at first, you don’t succeed, you can always try again on the next rainy day! It’ll give you something to look forward to, and helps keep the gloom away.

What’s your favourite type of weather? And have you ever tried painting on rainy days? Let us know in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
Tagged with: art tips watercolour
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