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How to Paint
Watercolour Clouds

How to paint watercolour clouds

Learning how to paint watercolour clouds is a worry for many aspiring artists, but it needn't be so.

It just takes a bit of organisation of your equipment before-hand, a rough idea of the sort of sky you're trying to produce - and of course, following this tutorial.

Like most things, once you've gone through the process of making mistakes, (and you will for sure because everybody does) producing believable clouds in a watercolor sky is quite straightforward.

However, the beauty is that you'll never produce the same sky twice...

Now read these next notes carefully before you actually get going.

Learning how to paint clouds that look right isn't difficult - and won't even take that long - but it does need a bit of preparation before you dive in.


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How to Paint Watercolour Clouds - Before you Start

The most common early faults are usually, having too much water or too little paint in your mix.

Watercolor paint dries about 50% lighter than when you first slosh it on the paper. If your sky looks the right strength at first when it's wet, it's going to be too weak and pale when dry.

This means those clouds you're trying to create won't stand out as clearly as you'd wish.

The alternative fault is putting almost pure pigment on the paper so your sky is such a vibrant blue that it looks like a midnight background on a Christmas card.

The trick of course, in learning how to paint clouds, is to get the sky colors somewhere in between these two extremes.

Timing is also important. Whilst the paper is still damp with paint, you have a chance of adjusting your sky, such as adding other cloud colors or taking paint out to lighten different areas.

However, once it starts to dry, putting on extra paint or water or lifting out paint to attempt to correct what you think is a slight flaw, will almost certainly make a bigger mess of what you set out to eradicate.

Instead let it dry and see what happens...

The best advice is to spend no more than two or three minutes at most on your complete sky and somewhat less on the actual cloud formations.

To succeed, this requires three things.

  1. Getting all your colors prepared to the right strength beforehand. Mix more than you think you need - you don't have time to mix extra paint in the middle of painting your clouds and sky.
  2. Having a rough idea in your mind of where you want your clouds and blue areas etc. to go in the sky. You don't have to be too precise - the watercolor paints won't let you - but it helps enormously in learning how to paint clouds that look fresh and float naturally, rather than pieces of cotton wool dangling in regular patterns across your paper...
  3. Stopping when it's finished. Logical yes, but harder than you think because a wet sky can often look a mess when first painted and the temptation is to fiddle.

If you practice a few skies first and let them dry without trying to establish a 'perfect' cloud formation, see what happens to the way the colors blend. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised more often than you're disapppointed...

Right, let's get going!


How to Paint Watercolour Clouds - Stage One

This is a basic sky, going from a fairly strong blue at the top to a much paler, creamy color at the horizon. Just three colors are required.

Ultramarine Blue and Yellow Ochre (or Raw Sienna) for the sky itself and a mix of Ultramarine Blue and Light Red for the cloud shadows.

How to paint watercolour clouds - stage 1

Use a large round watercolour brush (at least a No.10 or 12) or a 1" flat brush, or one of a similar paint-holding capacity.

Before you start, prop up the top of your board with your watercolor paper on it. A book or piece of wood about 1"- 2" thick is fine for this.

First, paint the whole sky area with clean water. Wet it but don't flood it. Whilst it's damp, put a very pale wash of the yellow ochre just above the horizon and about a third of the way up the sky. Look at the photo. I used a flash for some of the photos so you can see the reflection of the damp paper.


How To Paint Watercolour Clouds - Stage Two

Now take a fairly strong mix of Ultramarine (remember, stronger than you think at this stage) and run your brush once across the top of the sky, leaving a nice broad band of blue.

Dip your brush into water, then into your blue paint and run a second band of blue underneath, just picking up the bottom of this first band.

Because you've dipped your brush in water then the paint, the second band will be slightly paler. Also it'll start to run down the paper evenly due to the fact that it's at a slight angle.

How to paint watercolour clouds - stage 2

Repeat this until you reach the area of yellow ochre and let the two areas run together.

Because the blue and yellow colors are so pale when they meet, you'll find they don't turn green as you might expect. Instead, they should form that lovely light glow you get on the horizon.

You'll probably find that a bead of water accumulates at the bottom of the sky area.

Carefuly dab this away with a paper towel, or better still, squeeze out any excess water on your brush and run it along the bottom of the bead.

You'll find it sucks it up like a sponge.


How To Paint Watercolour Clouds - Stage Three

If you wan't a cloudless, sunny sky, you can leave it at this stage.

However, this is a 'how to paint clouds' tutorial so I'll assume you want to do just that. The simplest way to achieve it is to again squeeze out the excess water from your brush and then 'roll' the side of the brush randomly across the blue part of your sky.

How to paint watercolour clouds - stage 3

You'll find the damp brush lifts out blue pigment in a very realistic impression of clouds.

The photo above shows you how to do this. Here, I've used a 1" flat brush. This should take only a few seconds or you'll overdo it. Don't worry about raggedy, slightly hard edges at this point in time. These will soften on the still damp paper. If you want, roll the brush a bit then clean it on a paper towel before you create a few more clouds.

This is so you don't start putting blue paint back into the paper that you've just lifted out. You can now leave the sky as it is with fluffy white clouds, or you can add one more stage.

Oh by the way, have you noticed that learning how to paint clouds in watercolor is actually learning how to take paint off the paper rather than putting it on?


How To Paint Watercolour Clouds - Stage Four

If you want to add cloud shadows, now is the time. However, you need that strong light red/ultramarine mix I mentioned earlier for a nice grey shadow colour.

How to paint watercolour clouds - stage 4

The reason it has to be the strongest mix is that you've already got damp paint on your paper for the rest of the sky.

If you were to put a very watery shadow color on top, the water floods the paper and pushes the paint pigment already there to one side and produces the dreaded 'cauliflower' effect. Try it on some scrap paper and see what I mean.

Using some of your shadow color, dab it on the base and to one side of the clouds you've created, remembering the sun would be shining on the opposite side of them.

In this 'How to Paint Clouds' demo, I've imagined the sun coming from the top left. Again, be restrained with your shadow colour, but do make sure you put it on before the paper starts to dry.

As an aside, note from the close-up photo below how the paint 'granulates' into the hollows of the watercolor paper, producing a lovely added texture to your clouds and sky.

How to paint watercolour clouds - granulation

Take some photos of different skies and cloud formations and use them as a reference to provide ideas.

Also, try different combinations of blue, red, yellow and brown for the shadow colors - see which ones work for you and which don't.

I hope you've enjoyed following this 'how to paint clouds' tutorial.

With practice you'll find that you will soon be producing some very believable cloudy skies - the perfect complement to the rest of your painting, or lovely subjects in their own right.


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