10 Tips: How to Paint Skies and Clouds
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 a slave 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
Hard Versus Soft Edges
How you render edges is critical when painting the sky.
- 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.
2. Chromatic Grays Enhance the Vibrant Parts of a Painting
Create Grays With Triads of Complementary Colors
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.
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
Clouds on the Horizon Are Cooler and Lighter
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.
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.
Observe the Clouds to Help Capture Them in Paintings
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.
How About You...
Do you find painting skies easy?
5. Don’t Be a Slave to the Photo
Change Things as Needed to Improve the Painting
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.
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 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
Paint From General to Specific
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.
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
The Sky is Often the Lightest Shape in Your Painting
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?
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.
Look at Perspective, Coloration, Size, and Lighting
8. Thick Paint vs Glazes
Start Thin, End Thick
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.
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 thinking 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: It Used to Intimidate Me So Much!
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.
Train Your Eye With These Cloud Formations
Self-Taught Art Lessons Made Me Better at Painting Skies
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.
Questions & Answers
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?
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.Helpful 51
For blue sky and white clouds; generally speaking what color is your underpainting?
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.Helpful 19
What about when painting stormy skies? How can I catch the fury and magnificence of the sky right before a storm?
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.Helpful 14
What colour is the light of the sun in the picture?
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.Helpful 8
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??
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.Helpful 6