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10 Tips for How to Paint Skies and Clouds

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Learn tips and tricks for painting more realistic clouds in the sky. Learn to notice things like atmospheric and linear perspective, how sky colors are less intense in the distance and more intense in the clouds closer to us, and more tips.

Learn tips and tricks for painting more realistic clouds in the sky. Learn to notice things like atmospheric and linear perspective, how sky colors are less intense in the distance and more intense in the clouds closer to us, and more tips.

What You Need to Know About Painting Clouds and Skies

I'm sharing ten things about painting clouds and skies that I learned the hard way. Hopefully, they will help other artists to avoid some painting struggles.

10 Things to Consider When Painting Skies

  1. The importance of soft edges in skies
  2. Chromatic grays enhance the vibrant parts of a painting
  3. Atmospheric perspective
  4. Nothing is truly white in the sky
  5. Don't be beholden to the photo
  6. Use bigger brushes
  7. The lightest light is much lighter than you'd think
  8. Thick paint versus glazes
  9. Linear perspective in clouds
  10. Rendering clouds as solid objects

We are going to look into each one in detail. Let's begin!

1. The Importance of Soft Edges in Skies

How you render edges is critical when painting the sky.

Hard vs Soft Edges

  • A hard edge defines neatly where an object ends and the next starts.
  • A soft edge is when the color of an object fades or blends into the adjacent one.

Both sky and clouds have some of the softest edges you can find in nature. Like in any part of the painting, in clouds, a balance between soft and hard edges is very important. Edges will help you describe the volume of the clouds and the translucency.

  • Parts of the clouds are so thin that the sky behind shows through. Mixing the sky color into the cloud color, and keeping the edges soft and broken will help a lot.
  • Also, the sky over the horizon gradually changes color. This can be described very well with glazes and blending.
  • For sharp edges apply thick paint with no blending.

If you are painting with acrylics, it gets a little trickier to blend edges, you'll have to act quickly before the painting dries. It may help to use a retardant like the Liquitex slow-dry blending medium or to use Open Golden acrylic paint, which has a much longer drying time than regular acrylics. I've tried both and the open acrylic has the advantage of coming in many colors, the retardant medium requires you to do the work of mixing it with the colors you are using, but it has the advantage to require the purchase of only one bottle.

Learn more about edges in painting.

Example of soft and hard edges in clouds. "Much Needed" Detail - Oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved

Example of soft and hard edges in clouds. "Much Needed" Detail - Oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved

2. Chromatic Grays Enhance the Vibrant Parts of a Painting

As much as I love the bright colors of sunsets, I soon realized that a painting full of only intense colors does not look good. You need some neutral colors in there to enhance the more intense areas.

Create Grays With Triads of Complementary Colors

Some dull and “ugly” colors are necessary to make the vibrant colors sing. Grays are a great complement to a colorful sky. A bright orange will look even brighter if placed next to a gray.

When I say gray, I don’t mean a mixture of black and white or gray from a tube. I like to mix my grays using several of the colors that I have in the sky and in the rest of the painting.

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3. Atmospheric Perspective

The more distance between us and an object, the stronger the filtering effect of the atmosphere.

Looking into the distance, colors and hues change, due to the amount of air and particles that are between the viewer and the object. This happens both on land and in the sky and it's known as atmospheric perspective.

Clouds on the Horizon Are Cooler and Lighter

Look at a view that expands to the horizon and notice how:

  • Colors are less intense in the distance, more intense in the objects closer to us.
  • Colors are cooler in the distance and warmer in the foreground.
  • Value contrasts get smaller in the distance.
  • The sky is darker up above our heads and gets lighter moving toward the horizon.

Knowing how to paint atmospheric perspective is a very important factor when rendering a landscape or a skyscape.

4. Nothing is Truly White in the Sky

Everything in nature is influenced by the color of light. I used to paint the top of the sunlit clouds a pure white.

Then I realized that the color of light and the reflection of the blue sky affect all the colors in the landscape, including clouds. Nothing is true white in the sky.

Chromatic Whites

Thus, I started tinting the white with yellow, magenta, violet, or blue, depending on the weather conditions and whether or not a cloud is in direct sunlight. At the minimum, I mix a tiny bit of transparent orange into my white, to add some warmth.

I use zinc white for mixing into colors, and titanium white in highlights. That’s because titanium white is very opaque and lightens the colors very quickly, making them look chalky. Zinc white is more transparent and allows you to keep the vibrancy of the colors while lightening them.

"Glimpse" —oil on canvas by Robie Benve, all rights reserved

"Glimpse" —oil on canvas by Robie Benve, all rights reserved

5. Don’t Be Beholden to the Photo

If you are painting from a photo, feel free to leave out elements that are in the photo but are not helping the composition. It’s often a good idea to edit the shape of clouds, move trees, smooth a coastline, etc.

Change Things as Needed to Improve the Painting

Be open to changes that are good for the overall composition of your picture. Your painting will not be hanging next to the reference photo, no one will know if the cloud was rounder or the trees were all the same size.

Also, when painting from a photo keep in mind that the camera alters color relationships. Dark areas look much darker in a photo; shadows tend to lose all the details. When observed in real-life, shadow areas are actually still showing much of their local color and variations.

In the end, the photo will not be hanging next to the painting, feel free to correct things and move them around for the sake of the painting.

6. Use Bigger Brushes

I thought I was using good size brushes. But I kept saying I wanted to paint loser. I was complaining that my paintings looked overworked. Then I understood: I needed to use bigger brushes.

Paint From General to Specific

At the beginning of the painting, your brushes should be the biggest and become smaller as you approach the completion of the painting.

  • Think bigger shapes, don’t focus on details until the very end of the painting. Paint general to specific.
  • Start by brushing in thin paint with huge brushes, blend the edges. Just to give you an idea, for a 20x24 inch canvas, I start with 2-inch brushes.
  • Throughout the painting, keep using bigger brushes than those you would instinctively use. Pick up a brush, then put it down and switch to one a couple of sizes bigger.
  • At the end, add details with small brushes, but don’t overdo it.
A beautiful cloudy day reference photo I have taken one day from up the steps at the stadium. Look at perspective, coloration, size, and lighting.

A beautiful cloudy day reference photo I have taken one day from up the steps at the stadium. Look at perspective, coloration, size, and lighting.

7. The Lightest Light Is Much Lighter Than You Would Think

This is another very important concept that I had a hard time understanding at the beginning. Yellow is a light color, right? So why was the yellow sky in my sunset looking like it wasn’t light enough?

The Sky Is Often the Lightest Shape in Your Painting

Comparing a value chart to my reference photo and to my painting, I could tell that what I thought was a light value paint color, very often was much darker than I thought.

There is a disconnection about how a color looks while we are mixing it compared to when we apply it to the painting. Temperature and value are relative to what surrounds a color. A color might look warm on the palette, but appear cool once applied on the canvas.

Similarly, I find myself mixing a light value, only to find out that it’s way too dark when I test it on the canvas. As a rule of thumb, even on a hazy day, the sky is most likely the lightest shape in your painting.

  • When mixing a very light color, start from a light color (i.e. white) and add your darker colors a tiny bit at a time. It’s easier to go darker if it’s too light but hard as heck to make a dark color lighter.
Value Scale

Value Scale

8. Thick Paint vs Glazes

The sky is made of air, vapor, and particles. I like to start with very a thin wash of paint. With acrylics, I dilute them with water, with oils I thin them with odorless turpentine, then I apply glazes on the canvas, varying the colors of the glazes: light value in some areas, and darker in others, depending on the subject.

Start Thin and End Thick

This initial layout of darks and lights helps me organizing my composition. I start this way both for the sky and more solid objects on the ground. Once I have the layout of the painting clear, I start applying thicker paint in some areas. I have learned that in most cases it looks better if darker colors are applied thinner.

In the sky, I use thicker paint for clouds that I want to appear more solid or closer to the viewer.

"Featherlike" oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved. Sometimes clouds are light and swept by the wind, like this colorful one.

"Featherlike" oil painting by Robie Benve, all rights reserved. Sometimes clouds are light and swept by the wind, like this colorful one.

9. Linear Perspective in Clouds

Lines and proportions in the sky are affected by the same rules of perspective that apply to objects on the ground, with vanishing points and all lines pointing towards them.