Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
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
- The importance of soft edges in skies
- Chromatic grays enhance the vibrant parts of a painting
- Atmospheric perspective
- Nothing is truly white in the sky
- Don't be beholden to the photo
- Use bigger brushes
- The lightest light is much lighter than you'd think
- Thick paint versus glazes
- Linear perspective in clouds
- 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.
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.
- To keep the grays chromatic while ensuring color harmony, create grays with triads of complementary colors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you look at the clouds from an airplane, you realize that they are floating parallel to the surface of the Earth. When you look at the clouds from the ground, it’s like looking up from under a huge table, where the clouds are the tabletop.
Clouds are getting smaller as they get closer to the vanishing point, just as any other object would respond to linear perspective.
10. Rendering Clouds as Solid Objects
When drawing or painting clouds, it helps to think of them as solid objects. Though they have irregular edges and they might be transparent, visualize them as cuboids, box-shaped objects.
This helps a lot when rendering shadows and lights of a cloud.
If you are painting clouds, make a sketch first on a separate piece of paper, using simple value shapes. Draw them as boxes. Determine which sides are in light, shade, partial shade, or reflected light.
That will be your reference for your painting, but you’ll have to make the edges irregular and rounder to have good-looking clouds.
Painting Clouds Can Be Intimidating
I can spend hours looking at the sky and the ever-changing clouds. Especially, I love sunsets. They make me smile inside. Maybe because of this emotional attachment or just because of visual pleasure, a few years back I started putting more emphasis on the sky of my landscape paintings.
At first, I was terrified of painting clouds. Once on the canvas, they never looked as I “painted” them in my head; most of the time my painted clouds appeared very amateurish, kind of childish. But I kept trying. I started looking for art books and read about painting skies; I started watching painting videos on the subject.
The Benefit of Self-Taught Art Lessons
I am very attracted to scenes with astounding sunsets and gorgeous clouds, and one day I started painting them.
At some point, it dawned on me that slowly I had created a series of paintings with the sky as the main focus, most of which were sunsets, and they weren’t bad! Through my self-taught art lessons, I actually got much better at painting skies.
Every Painting Teaches You Something New
Looking back at my first cloud painting, I realize how much I learned in the last three years about painting skies. I keep working on it. Reading art books and articles, watching tutorials, taking classes, but especially painting, putting paint to canvas, helps me understand what works and what doesn’t.
How About You...
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: There are times when I see a cloud formation where the main cloud in the sky is bright white! I've called my husband at work to go outside and see this unreal bright white cloud! I feel that if I were painting that cloud, titanium white straight from the pallet would show what I was seeing! Am I wrong about the bright white?
Answer: I agree, sometimes that the clouds appear really white. I used to paint them with titanium white right out of the tube, but it never did them justice. They become flat white shapes, showing no volume or fluffiness.
I learned to look for subtleties. Inside a white cloud, there are hundreds of very delicate variations in value and color. Challenge your eyes to see them, and one day, just like magic, you will not be able to see white anymore. That's how it went for me. I think it's all a matter of training our perception of color and values.
For practice, look at clouds through a small hole on a neutral-colored piece of paper or a pinhole made with your fist. Move the hole slightly and compare what you see on different sections of the same shape, this should help you see subtle variations.
Question: For blue sky and white clouds; generally speaking what color is your underpainting?
Answer: When toning a canvas, the trick is to pick colors that make your job easier.
For a sunny-day sky painting, I would tone the canvas with a warm color, to add warmth to the final painting. My go-to is probably raw sienna, a simple and easy tone. However, I'd choose a color that somehow unifies sky and land, so if I have orange elements on the landscape under the sky, I'd pick an orange(ish) ground color.
It's also a good idea to vary the toning color in different areas of the canvas to support the variations in the final painting. So where the clouds are going to be placed a lighter version of the color works well. If you are using oils, avoid mixing white into the ground colors because it dries slowly and it would end up creating a chalky effect on the next layers of paint. Light it up using a lighter/brighter yellow instead.
Another option for toning would be to cover the canvas with a bright version of the sky color, maybe teal or cerulean blue. In this case, when you go to paint the sky, you'll find that your job is already halfway done in several areas.
Question: What about when painting stormy skies? How can I catch the fury and magnificence of the sky right before a storm?
Answer: Well, as for any subject, stormy clouds have shapes, darks, lights and a variety of hard and soft edges.
Observe closely the reference image, and start by create big shapes with strong value patterns by grouping darks and lights into bigger shapes.
Here are the rules of thumb that are good for any painting, including fury skies:
Connect darks together by eliminating small and unimportant lighter shapes.
Create a nice color variety, don't use gray out of a tube. (Stormy clouds are all shades of dull purple, blue, and sometimes green or magenta.)
Keep changing slightly the color mix every few brushstrokes, but keep it in the same value family.
Don’t worry about details and small defining strokes until the very end.
Question: I'm wanting to paint my small recessed porch ceiling as a sky with clouds. I'm trying to relate your instructions to that project but I'm having a little difficulty. How do I translate the instructions from painting on canvas to painting on a ceiling??
Answer: That sounds like a wonderful project! I've never painted clouds on a ceiling, but I would imagine all the same rules apply. The only difference is that to make the clouds "believable" you'll have to paint them as you see them above you, not in front of you.
For reference, take photos pointing the camera straight up. Also, a lot of Catholic churches have the ceiling painted with amazing scenes of angels and saints that appear to look down from the clouds. You may want to look up church ceiling frescos for inspiration.
Question: What colour is the light of the sun in the picture?
Answer: The article has a few pictures, I'm not sure which one you are referring to.
However, in the paintings by me (Robie Benve) the sunlight is in the yellow range, with a hint of magenta. You can see that in the variations that go from the highlights to the deepest shadows in the clouds.
The first painting, the one with the title, is by Thomas Cooper Gotch and I don't see a lot of warm colors in the clouds, it looks like the color of the light is cooler in that one. However, that might depend on hot that particular photo was taken and edited, I'm not sure if it reflects the true colors of the painting.
© 2016 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 20, 2020:
Hi Heather, unfortunately the sky, being very bright, often shows in photos as an overexposed flat shape. If you are taking reference photos, one way to solve the problem is to take one focusing on the dark parts (ground and vegetation) and another one focusing on the sky. The first photo will have a very light sky, the second will have a very dark landscape. Together they give you the information you need.
When you are working from an existing photo, I recommend looking for a different sky reference, a photo of a sky that has similar characteristics to the original one, that way you have consistency in lighting and shadows.
HeatherBellArt on July 19, 2020:
When working from a photo taken on a bright day, the sky often appears white. How to handle that washed out sky? Thanks!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 20, 2020:
That's wonderful to hear Charu! So glad you found the motivation to paint by reading my article. Happy sky painting!
Charu on June 19, 2020:
Hi ! Robbie
After reading your tips I’m motivated to finish a skyscraper I abandoned in disappointment!
So thank you , (deep breath) let’s give it a go
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on July 17, 2019:
Hi, Robie, you are very welcome. Honestly, i can relate to your disliking the "happy tree," because in the paintings that he did about life in the mountains, the work would have stood by itself without the tree--but since he was the creator/painter, I kept this to myself.
Write me anytime, Robie.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 17, 2019:
Thanks a lot Kenneth!! Bob Ross had wonderful skills and amazing screen presence, I am not a big fan of the "happy tree" style, but I really admire what he was able to accomplish, especially his positive attitude and the huge amount of people that he inspired to pick up a brush and paint, that's phenomenal. Being compared to him is a huge honor, thank you!!
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on July 16, 2019:
Robie...nice work here. Very compelling and interesting. I recall being lost with that Mr. Ross, Bob? Who painted on PBS and always put A Big tree smack dab into the middle of his work, but oh my goodness, what a talent he had and so do you.
Keep up both, the painting and writing.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 14, 2019:
Thank you so much for your comment Cheryl, I'm so happy to hear my article had such a positive effect. Happy painting!
Cheryl Swarthout on July 12, 2019:
I had an AHA! moment reading your helpful tips. Never before thought about linear perspective in painting skies. "Looking at the bottom of a table". Just brilliant and this will help me so much. Thank you!
Bill Coady on April 20, 2019:
Very informative ! I painted my first clouds 3 weeks ago and have repainted my canvas panel at least 7 times and the clouds are becoming more "real" each time ! It is really an exhausting experience for a guy with congestive heart failure as I paint 5 to 6 hours per day ; but really a happy fulfilling day ! Thanks much ! Bill Coady
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 02, 2019:
Thanks a lot Carrie! Your articles are amazing, so coming from you it really means a lot. :)
Carrie Kelley from USA on April 02, 2019:
This is a great article with valuable tips and observations. Beautiful artwork too! Thank you for posting it.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 22, 2019:
Hi Ruth, you are very welcome :) I had a similar experience when I first discovered atmospheric perspective, it's like my brain already had noticed it, but never really rationalized it, end then boom! the fading of colors, the lower contrast, etc. it all made sense.
Ruth Willis on March 18, 2019:
Thanks for explaining atmospheric perspective, that really helped me! I only knew of the perspective with the vanishing point, now lots of more things make sense.
Amy Fisher on February 02, 2019:
As a mural artist I have struggled to get the colors and shapes right, it’s above my head instead of on a canvas. I love all your helpful hints mostly about the white, and the horizon, I have always gradated the sky to lighter but I never thought to change my clouds. Thank you for this wonderful gift, you are going to make my paintings better. I’ll never stop learning
Conti on October 13, 2018:
Thank you very much for the wonderful notes.
JK on October 03, 2018:
Thats some fantastic tips and it was super useful to me.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 27, 2018:
Hi Tia, isn't it fascinating how we all struggle to get on canvas what we see in our heads? I love that challenge. Every new painting I start I have this amazing optimistic feeling that it's going to be the one finally perfect, and for every painting I finish I feel like "nope, not exactly what I had in mind, but I learned a lot from painting this, next painting I'll be able to render my vision." lol Happy painting.
Tia Stanway from Canada on August 20, 2018:
Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. I had all but given up on a canvas I have in the works of a prairie sky but this article has given me renewed motivation to keep at it. Thank you! I completely related to your comment about how the clouds would look so different on canvas to how you “painted” them in your head. More practice on my part is definitely needed!
Katrinah on July 28, 2018:
I am beginning painter. Thank you for all your tips.
Jj on July 27, 2018:
Marcus on June 30, 2018:
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 30, 2018:
How wonderful to hear that after reading my article you are inspired to paint photos that have been on your bucket list for a while, and of clouds of all subjects! My favorite. :) Dive in, have fun, and enjoy every brushstroke! I hope you'll love the outcome. If not, just give it another try. Happy painting!
Karen Hellier from Georgia on June 26, 2018:
Wow, you are quite talented Robie. I love the cloud paintings you have included in this article. I have some photos I took of clouds off a cruise ship a few years ago and have always wanted to paint them but didn't know where to start. These tips are wonderful and will really help me. Thanks for the information.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 17, 2018:
Hi Charlotte, I would paint skies with whatever medium you are starting with. oil based, watermedia, or dry medium, all can be used to paint any subject. I started with acrylics, and evolved into oils later, both are great. If you use acrylics, try to create soft edges for the clouds by using thin glazes in layers or mixing paint at the edge while still wet. Experiment and have fun. If you don't like the results at the first try, you can always paint over and change it. :)
Charlotte on January 15, 2018:
What do you think a beginner should use for painting skies? Should I go for acrylics or oil?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 18, 2016:
LOL RTalloni, that sounds so familiar! Love the positive attitude though, that's the only way to success :)
Skies are not an easy subject, that's exactly why I try to share the little I know - hoping it might help other artists. Focusing on those that turn out great is the key, I think. Sounds like you are doing great. Thanks a lot for your comment! And happy (or should I say heavenly) painting! :)
RTalloni on May 18, 2016:
Thank you for sharing your experience and tips here. I'll be coming back to read the details more carefully because I still struggle with skies. One time my work turns out great, the next time I can only shake my head at the failure! I just say, "Oh well, maybe next time." :)