Painting White Clouds in Watercolor
If you’ve tried to paint white clouds in watercolor, you know that the trick is to Not paint the clouds, but instead, paint and “feather” the sky around the clouds, and the shadows of the cloud bellies, etc. The white of your paper represents the clouds, so your brush and hand have to be restrained to leave areas clean and clear. I think this is the biggest challenge in white cloud painting with watercolor. Painters see everything in paint, and color choices and values, but when painting white or bright reflections in watercolor, the painter has to stack strategies that will preserve the white of the paper in a way that looks natural, and not like a cut-out from the pigments around it.
Experiment with Options
If you look for inspiration and tutorials online, you could easily fill a month with watercolor cloud painting adventures, and I recommend doing that if you’d like to harvest an arsenal of approaches for all your future cloud paintings. The moral of the story on cloud painting is that there are All Sorts of Ways, and none of them are wrong, or better than the others, because it’s ultimately a matter of artistic preference and taste. If I assembled a grid of 20 different white cloud and sky watercolors (pretend I did that, and imagine it), I bet you a dollar and a donut that everyone looking at the grid would know they were ALL cloud paintings, no matter the skill level of the artist. We know clouds, and most of us are fascinated by their majestic beauty. The trick is to learn how to paint white clouds in watercolor in a way that leads to YOUR happiness with the results.
Try Not to Wing It (Like I did)
I painted this little cloud study above without 1) researching, 2) practicing or 3) having a plan, [durrr] and that’s quite apparent in the finished piece! I looked at the painting the next day, and pondered a remedy-series of cloud studies in watercolor, so I could learn a thing or two. I don’t paint clouds often, but after looking for lessons to improve my approach, I found all sorts of help online and on my book shelves. To save you from going down the painting-white-clouds-in-watercolor-hole in a willy-nilly fashion like I did, I’ve assembled some resources for you below.
YouTube to the Rescue
Did I tell you about that time I rebuilt the innards of a leaking toilet-tank in my house by watching a tutorial on YouTube? Or that weekend I learned how to Edit video from YouTube tutorials so I could remove studio-cat bloopers from painting demos on my channel? And then I found a monarch chrysalis laying on our deck, and YouTube schooled me on keeping it safe till it eclosed in my kitchen. I’m a big YouTube fan. Here are some videos demonstrating painting clouds in watercolor:
- Peter Sheeler has assembled a whole series of cloud and sky painting tutorials in watercolor, and you can see them here.
- Jennifer Branch demonstrates an expanse of blue skies and white clouds in a landscape painting in fifteen minutes in this video.
- Peter Wooley explores the effectiveness of lifting clouds out of the watercolored sky with tissue here. He makes a point to use a sturdy paper with good sizing when trying this technique.
- Jeremy Ford demonstrates a cloudscape over a shore using a controlled wet into wet technique with pre-mixed pools of pigment here.
- Steve Mitchell demonstrates a glowing sunset sky with clouds in shadow, so it’s less of a preserving-the-white of the paper technique, and more of a value-control exercise. Have a look here.
- Susan Herron makes sky and cloud painting look Flick-of-the-Wrist-Easy, and she talks about letting the paint do the work, why she loves French Ultramarine Blue for the visible granulation, and how using a hair dryer to expedite drying layers too soon might not be a good idea in a sky watercolor.
Paper over Pixels? No Problem.
If video tutorials are not your jam, and you prefer the weight of a real, paper book in your lap, reading the written word, while sipping tea near a sunny window in an overstuffed chair – I’ll be right over! And I’ll bring cookies! 🍪 If you like to take notes while perusing chapters in an art book so you can digest painting tips to use later in your studio, here are some books (below) on amazon. You may find them helpful in your endeavors to paint clouds in watercolor:
The sky is the key to the landscape. Its majesty permeates outdoor nature. It is the dictator of conditions and moods – not alone in the moods of nature, but our own as well. I know that there are men who never see the sky at all. A certain plain man of our hills at Woodstock once said: “You know, before you artists got here, I never used to see the sky.” ~Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting
Why Paint Clouds?
Do you paint white clouds in watercolor? How about dark, richly bruised clouds staggered in orange and pink sunsets in watercolor? Who are your mentors and best inspirations for painting clouds and skyscapes in watercolor? If you have a few helpful resources, please leave them in the comments so we can help each other out.
Clouds can stop traffic, and halt conversations with fingers pointing towards jaw-dropping beauty. A pile of cumulus clouds can cause spontaneous moments of silence to absorb their ephemeral shapes and colors. A high track of cirrus clouds can inflate the baffles on our sense of wonder and mystery. Cumulonimbus masses warn us about bad weather coming our way. Maybe it’s our duty as artists to remind people to look at the sky every now and again by trying our best to paint it well. What do you think about that?
Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you in the next post!
P.S. I should add John F. Carlson’s excellent book Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting to my list of books above, since he has an entire chapter on clouds, and so much of his wisdom is easily digestible and immediately applicable. I got my well-worn, often turned to copy on Amazon for about $10 here.
As a poet, I’ve realized that one of the most important things I do is give people words, images, metaphors and stories to describe the world of their daily experience.