How To Paint Stunning Skies & Clouds In Watercolor

I think that painting skies and clouds is one of the most enjoyable aspects of watercolor painting. It’s fun and freeing, because ninety percent of the time you will be using the wet in to wet painting technique. Wet into wet is fun, because you can let the paint do what it wants, without having to be overly concerned about perfect results.

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Materials List For Sky & Cloud Watercolor

Here’s the list of all the art materials used in this blog post, I’ve linked to where you can buy them on Amazon.

Paints
Alizarin Crimson
Cadmium Red (Optional)
Dioxazine Purple (Optional)
Cerulean Blue
French Ultramarine
Cobalt Blue (Optional)
Paynes Gray
Raw Sienna
New Gamboge

Pencils
Faber-Castell 4B Pencils

Brushes
Winsor & Newton Series 150 Bamboo Brush (Great inexpensive brush,
ideal for painting feathered clouds etc)
Princeton 1″ Flat Brush (For laying in skies and large areas of color)
Hake Brush (Optional, also great for painting feathery loose clouds)
No.8 Princeton Round Brush A very versatile and useful brush
Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Cold Press,
9″ x 12″, 140 pound

How To Paint A Simple Cloudless Sky

Simple sky with no clouds

Skies in watercolor are generally painted wet into wet and from light to dark. Your paper should be shiny wet but not “Puddle” wet. This facilitates soft diffused clouds but is not so wet that the paint runs chaotically around the paper. To Paint a basic sky you’ll need to paint a smooth graduated wash from dark blue at the top down to pale blue at the bottom.

The best way to do this is to work on a tilted surface. 15 – 30 degrees is ideal. This way, the paint will naturally tend to flow down the paper. Mix up plenty of Ultramarine Blue and work your way down the paper in long horizontal brush strokes. Don’t allow the bead of wet paint that forms to dry, because this will result in streaky bands. Start to dilute the wash with water and transition into the much paler Cerulean blue working in thinner, more dilute washes as you progress.

Before you try and paint a smooth graduated wash make sure that you fully understand how to paint a basic flat wash. Related post: how to paint a perfect flat wash in watercolour.

How To Paint Clouds In Watercolor

Types Of Clouds

To be able to paint clouds it helps to understand the different cloud types and when they occur. There are at least ten different cloud types and these also have their own sub-categories. As I’m mainly interested in clouds from the perspective of an artist, rather than a meteorologist, I’m just going to focus on some of the most common and visually interesting types.

Types of clouds

1.Cumulus Clouds

Most people are familiar with Cumulus clouds. They’re the white or light gray clouds that look like fluffy balls of cotton or cauliflowers. These are most often seen on bright sunny days. They don’t produce much, if any rain and are some of the lowest clouds in the atmosphere usually below the 6000 foot range. Cumulus clouds tend to be relatively flat and shaded on the underside.

2. Stratocumulus Clouds

These are another low atmospheric cloud. They are similar to Cumulus but are larger and tend to group together in long lines and waves. Stratocumuli don’t produce much in the way of rain but they can be darker and more dramatic than Cumulus clouds. They can be indicators of a coming storm.

3. Cumulonimbus Clouds

Cumulonimbus clouds can be vary dramatic in appearance they can rise from ground level right up to around 18,000 feet.

4. Cirrocumulus Clouds

These are a high altitude cloud that forms in long wavy rows of small puffy shapes. These shapes can often resemble the light and dark markings of a Mackerel. Hence the term “Mackerel skies”.

5. Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus cloudsare long diffuse wispy clouds that are found in the higher regions of the atmosphere at around 20,000 – 45,000 feet

How To Paint a Simple Sky With Cumulus Clouds

For the first example, I painted a simple summer sky, with patches of light Cumulus and Cirrus clouds. I used the following colors. Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue and Raw Sienna, plus a weak mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Paynes Gray for the cloud shadows. I want the shadows to have a slight warmth to them. Which is why I included some Alizarin Crimson in the mix.

simple sky with cumulus clouds step by step

I lightly sketched in my cloud shapes and took a large flat brush, covering my paper with a wash of clean water.

Working from light to dark. I painted on a weak wash of Raw Sienna with a flat brush. The Raw Sienna gives a nice warm glow, suggestive of sunlight.  I allowed the paper about a minute to dry, so that it still had a noticeable sheen on it.

Then, I took my Bamboo brush (Great for loose painting) and painted a wash of Cerulean Blue. Leaving gaps where my clouds were going to be. Skies tend to go from dark blue at their highest point. To a pale blue at the horizon. So I went back in and added some darker Ultramarine Blue at the top.

Depending on how quickly your paper is drying, you may need to let it dry completely and re wet it with a squirt or two from a spray bottle before painting the Ultramarine. Ideally, you want it to blend smoothly into the Cerulean Blue, with no obvious streaks or sharp edges.

I dropped streaks of my very weak mix of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Payne’s Gray mix for the cloud shadows.

Here’s the final result.

simple sky in watercolour

How To Paint Clouds And Sky In Perspective

For the next sky painting. I wanted to do Cumulus clouds again but this time add some perspective to convey a greater sense of depth. I find that it helps to visualize the clouds as a series of simple cube shapes in one point perspective. If you are not sure what I mean by “One point perspective” check out this tutorial on the Virtual Instructor website. Clouds are lit from above and there is often a corresponding shadow on the underside.

How to paint the sky with clouds in perspective
Simplifying Cloud Shapes

I’m going for a cooler color temperature this time, so I didn’t add the Raw Sienna wash. I’m focusing on the composition of the shapes and how they look as a whole. I’m also paying attention to perspective by making the cloud shapes smaller towards the bottom of the paper. The shadows underneath the clouds are also becoming thinner as the underside of the cloud will become less visible the further away it is.

Watercolor clouds painted with perspective 1
  1. Start with a loose sketch
  2. I’m painting clean water on the cloud shapes with a flat brush.
  3. Switching to a bamboo brush now for a more random, natural brush stroke, I’m painting around the clouds with Cerulean Blue and allowing the brush to come in contact with the wet patches of cloud occasionally to give a mixture of hard and soft edges.
Watercolor clouds painted with perspective 1
  1. I now have a sky filled with patches of white.
  2. Before it’s completely dry I’m going to lift out some of the moist paint and create some wispy Cirrus cloud shapes.
  3. I’ve added some shadows with a warm pale mix of Paynes Grey, Ultramarine and Alizaring Crimson.

How To Paint A Dramatic Sky With Storm Clouds

I’m using exactly the same colors as in the previous examples and the overall color temperature still has a lot of warmth in it but this time I’m ramping up the contrast and going for a much more dramatic feeling. I’ve gone much darker with the Ultramarine, Paynes Gray Alizarin Crimson mix to give the impression of encroaching dark clouds..

In the second example of a stormy sky I’m using the same basic color palette again but by leaving out the Raw Sienna and making the shadow colors lean more to the cooler side of the color wheel this sky conveys a much more wintry feeling.

How To Paint Sunset Skies

In this sunset. I’ve substituted New Gamboge. Which is brighter and more intense than Raw Sienna. Much closer to Orange.  I could have easily added some pinks or reds in there too.

Video: Painting a Simple Dramatic Sunrise

Recommended Brushes For Painting Skies & Clouds

I recommend using a large flat brush for applying the initial wash of water.

I used a Bamboo brush for painting around the clouds with my initial wash of blue. To be honest, It’s a really cheap brush, that’s useless for doing precise details. I  happen to like the way that it forces you to be free and loose. I could have just as easily used a hake, or a round brush.

Some Paintbrush options for painting skies in watercolour

Color options for Painting Skies

In the examples I’ve given, you can see that it’s possible to get dramatically different results simply by varying the intensity of the mix, or changing the balance of the mix.  You can favour the warmer or cooler sides of the color wheel but there are many other options for use of colors with  skies. You could substitute Cobalt Blue for Ultramarine and a whole range of reds pinks and purples are possible.

Lift Out Technique For Painting Clouds

My preferred method has been to paint around the clouds. Instead, I could have used the lift out technique. This technique is  very commonly used. Instead of painting around the clouds. You paint the sky and then simply lift out the clouds using a brush, or a  cloth , tissue, sponge etc. This method works best while the paint is still wet but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done with a dry painting. If your painting is dry though, you’ll need whatever you lift out with to be quite damp.

Ultimately, there’s no absolute right way to paint skies. I just prefer the end result that I achieve by designing the cloud shapes into the painting, rather than improvising and lifting them out on the fly.  For me, when painting in a fast drying medium like watercolor. Improvising under time pressure, tends to lead to poor results more often than it leads to happy accidents.

Lifting out clouds from a watercolor painting with tissue

7 Tips For Painting Skies & Clouds

  1. Avoid the temptation to keep going back and constantly fuss and fiddle with a sky to get it just right. Painting skies means that you are mostly going to be painting wet into wet. This means that the paint will just do more or less what it wants.
  2. When painting Blue over Raw Sienna. Allow the blue to diffuse into the Raw Sienna naturally and organically rather than heavy handedly brushing it in.  Doing this will cause the colors to mix, rather than subtly blend. The end result will be green skies!
  3. If you need to go back and darken an area of sky. Let it dry completely first. Then you can re wet the whole thing and paint another layer on top.
  4. Until you get used to the properties and peculiarities of your watercolor paints. Err on the side of making your sky a bit darker than you think it should be. Remember that watercolors dry significantly lighter, so a sky that looks just right when wet, may end up looking disappointingly wishy washy when dry.
  5. Clouds tend to be mixture of hard and soft edges. A misting water spray bottle, sprayed around the  area of your sky rather than completely wetting the paper can be a really useful way of achieving this effect in your paintings.
  6. A busy sky will clash with a busy landscape. As a general rule. If you have a lot of visual information going in your landscape, then you are only going to add to the confusion by making the sky too complex as well. So don’t be afraid to keep the sky plain and simple if it serves the overall composition better.
  7. Use a warm or cool neutral for grays in clouds, as opposed to a grey made from simply diluting black. For more information on mixing colored neutrals see my previous blog post here.

If you need some help trying to select appropriate art supplies for your needs I’ve put together a list of my recommended art supplies.

The final take away I have for you regarding skies is to just relax and have fun with them.

We’re all learning all the time. Do you have any tips for painting better skies that I haven’t included here? Did you try any of the techniques I suggested and find that it didn’t work well for you for some reason. Please leave a comment below and let me know.

watercolour sky step by step
how to paint stunning-skies in watercolour

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