Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.
Fabulous Watercolor Sky Techniques
For any landscape, the sky is critical. Unless you want a plain blue sky, the clouds and time of day make a big difference. The painting process is all about making the water your friend. Your paint must have the freedom to flow and be free to move if you are to achieve a spontaneous, loose look.
Be Willing to Take Risks
Many of the pictures I do are planned to the last detail before I begin, but sometimes I like to just pour paint on the surface of the paper and see what it will do before I even know what I am going to paint. It is being spontaneous. This makes a number of "happy accidents" that I couldn't have by planning. That sort of uninhibited approach is something for you to work toward. To begin, you may want more control than that. That's okay. We can explore several creative paths in this article.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
— St. Francis of Assisi
A Large Brush Holds More Water
I like ultramarine blue for the sky. It is soft, light and has a slight purple tint to it. However, any of the blues can be used for a sky. Try them all for yourself and choose your own favorite.
The common pitfall is for the amateur to see the sky as blue—just blue—and paint the whole of the sky that one color, a single shade of blue. Remember that the sky is not all one value of blue. There will be a variation in intensity. Dark at the high noon and lighter blue as you get closer to the horizon. Study the sky at different times of the day and see how the intensity of color changes.
Use the largest brush when painting a large expanse of sky. The one-inch flat holds a lot of water and spreads the paint thin, which is usually what you want for a sky. You can buy larger brushes, called mops, which do exactly that. It holds and spreads large amounts of water for a large “wash” on a sky or any large area.
"I like to make an image that's so simple you can't avoid it, and so complicated you can't figure it out."
— Alex Katz, American artist
Blot With Paper Towels
While the blue sky is still wet, wad a paper towel and blot off the blue in places. You can create a line of white clouds or only a few floating in a deep blue sky. After blotting clouds, go back and paint a deeper value of the same or a different blue across the top of the paper around the clouds. Lift the paper slightly, so the blue "runs" down to the clouds but stops at the edge (because the clouds are dry). Lay the paper flat again and blot any drips that ran into your clouds.
Flood With Clear Water
Another method of purposely making clouds without drawing them is to flood the "clouds" with clear water after painting the sky. The water will push the blue out of the way and leave soft edges. This method is used in the "Seagulls" painting above. However, this method is much less controlled than the paper towel method, and you end up with the "blossom," a ring of backwashed paint. Sometimes the blossom is desirable, and sometimes, it looks bad. This is one of those things that experience teaches best. Just for fun, you will have to try this technique on something you don't mind "ruining."
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
— Pablo Picasso
Where to Stop the Blue
When painting the sky near trees, you must remember that some sky is usually visible between branches and leaves. With this in mind, some artists paint blue all the way down to the horizon, right over any trees, because watercolor is transparent. Other artists will stop the blue at the tree line and insert a little blue sky here or there into the tree for a peek-a-boo sky effect. Either method works as long as you are using a light value of blue over the trees.
Remember that green is made with blue and yellow, so the blue of the sky will make the tree-green a little bluer if you have painted the sky under the trees. This is usually not a bad thing. The final call will be yours, of course. Watercolors are transparent, and only some of the blue will be apparent in the trees.
If you wish to make the trees fall colors, you will not want to paint the blue sky over the entire paper first. The yellow and orange over the blue will be grey-greenish, not fall colors.
"I skirmish and battle with the sun. And what sun here!... One would have to paint with gold and gems."
— Claude Monet
Load Your Brush
Open your watercolors and drip one drop of water into each of the paint wells. Leave them for a few minutes to absorb the water and get soft and rich. Loading your brush with so much water, it is at the point of dripping is a “full load.” This is what you need for the wettest washes used for the sky. The paint is thin because there is so much water. Good for skies, large areas of fields and mountains, lakes, etc. Tip the paper slightly as you paint it on. Never go back over the place you have just painted, or you will have streaks.
Notice in this painting that there are “blossoms” in the purple clouds. This won’t be a problem as I will be painting dark trees over these areas, and no one will know they are there in the end.
"As a painter I shall never signify anything of importance. I feel it absolutely."
— Vincent van Gogh
“If it (painting) weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.”
— Edgar Degas
Skys are fundamental to any landscape painting. These are only a few of the suggestions and lessons I've learned over the years. There is so much to say about the subject, but I will wait for another time for that. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I'd love to hear from you.
Have any questions about painting skies? Ask me.
Judi on August 29, 2020:
I couldn’t see any of the yellow colour left at the end. Was it just my perception. I love your work and how you explain it. Thanks so much
Andrea Jean on July 17, 2019:
Love your tutorials .would like to follow you more closely as I am a newbie to watercolor. Do you have a FB page?
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 30, 2019:
I just saw your comment. Sorry it's taken so long to respond. You can follow me on YouTube where I make lots of tutorial videos under my name. I am on Facebook and Twitter in my profile above and here in HubPages under Paintdrips. Also I have an Etsy shop called Dancing Paintbrush Co. I'd love to see you following me and feel free to ask anything you like. I enjoy sharing what I know.
Penny Lulich from Indiana on October 20, 2017:
I just wrote my first article on watercolor painting (I haven't published it yet). I love your article here. It's excellent, and I know I can learn from you. Thank you! How do I follow you?
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 14, 2014:
@John Dyhouse: I like to paint things cameras can't capture, future, past, things like that. Thanks for visiting my lens. And thanks for the kind comments about the girl in the blossoms.
John Dyhouse from UK on April 14, 2014:
I agree with the last commenter, you underestimate the the girl in the blossoms painting. Looks fine to me. I love painting skies and in fact sunsets/sunrise are my favourite subjects. I mainly paint landscapes and they give me ample opportunity for this aspect. My paintings are always about mood, I don't do realistic paintings anymore. I have my camera for that.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 14, 2013:
@delia-delia: I'm working on a lens to "fix" watercolor paintings that you aren't exactly happy with. Keep watching. Thanks for liking my lens.
Delia on October 14, 2013:
What great lens and watercolor paintings! I think that girl painting is darling, as well as all the rest..I love painting in watercolor, but watercolor does not like me, it's so unforgiving...I paint over my losers with acrylic and if that doesn't work, out it goes. ;-)