Painting Clouds in Watercolor – Tips and Resources

a watercolor of a beach shore with receding clouds over the ocean
Bright blue sky as a foil tof contrast for cotton clouds made of white, gray, yellow and purple.

Painting Clouds in Watercolor

If you’ve tried to paint clouds in watercolor, you know one of many tricks is to preserve the white of your watercolor paper.

Have you tried to paint skies around your white clouds, or shade in the cloud underbellies?

Have you painted clouds wet into wet with bold colors?

How about filling your entire paper with a field of blue sky, and then using crumpled tissue to blot clouds out while the pigment is still wet?

How would you paint these clouds in watercolor? Wet into wet? Glazing? Dry Brush?

Preserving the White of Your Watercolor Paper

The white of your paper represents the clouds, so your brush and hand may have to exercise restraint to leave areas clean and clear.

We also have to avoid hard edges, since the cloud boundaries dissipate in layers of soft, feathery transparencies (see below).

I think this is the biggest challenge in white cloud painting with watercolor, and that’s why I’ve harvested some great photo examples and video tutorials on painting clouds in watercolor in this post.

Painting white clouds against a blue sky in watercolor has a plethora of challenges

Cloud Painting in Watercolor

Painters see everything in paint, color and values. But when painting white or bright reflections in watercolor, the painter has to stack strategies that will preserve the white of the watercolor paper. Additionally, we want our clouds to look natural, and not like a cut-outs from the pigments around them.

Using masking film or frisket will preserve the white of your paper, but very often, that leaves a hard edge, which doesn’t read like a puffy, gossamer cloud, right?

No wonder watercolor painters are perplexed about how to proceed with painting clouds!

clouds in altadena california
A cloudy day in Altadena, California. I see pinks, yellows and peach colors in those borderless clouds. How about you?

Cloud Painting with Watercolors

You could fill a month with watercolor cloud painting adventures just by searching for cloud-painting tips and tutorials online. 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.

The basement under that moral is there are All Sorts of Clouds too. White, pink, bright orange, bruised gray, soft lavender colors are common in clouds. So a little close inspection of cloud photos will help inform your artist’s brain on ways to paint them.

A successful watercolor cloud painting is ultimately a matter of your artistic preference and tastes. Which kinds of clouds you want to paint? The photos above show all sorts of colors and shapes, but they are all still cloudscapes.

How would you paint this sky? How many different colors do you see in the clouds? Is there anything white in that sky?

Paint Often to Get Better at Painting

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 lofty beauty. The trick is to learn how to paint clouds in watercolor in a way that leads to YOUR happiness with the results. Make sense?

Tools for the job: Watercolor Block, Retractable Eraser, Technical Pencil, Ruler and Black & White Reference Photo folded to expedite drawing using the Grid Method

Make a Cloud Painting Plan

I don’t paint clouds often, but after looking for lessons to improve my approach, I found all sorts of help online. And there was even more tips I forgot about in books collected on my own studio shelves! 

To save you from going down the painting-clouds-in-watercolor-rabbit-hole in a willy-nilly fashion like I did, I’ve assembled some resources for you below.

Erasing Gridlines before laying down watercolors

Cloud Painting Tutorials on YouTube

Here is a nice collection of Cloud Painting video tutorials harvested just for you:

  • 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.
Controlling the cloud shapes in a watercolor with a little gouache mixed into the pigments

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:

Painting a beach before tackling the painting of clouds in watercolor
Glazing the first layers of transparent watercolor over the beach and waves on a hot press watercolor block
a watercolor cloud landscape painting in progress
Painting Clouds and Blue Skies
practice painting clouds by holding a cotton ball up to the sky and looking at how the shadows are shaped and colored by what's around the cloud
Paying attention to the way light illuminates, and shades the curves on a cotton ball cloud. Also noticing that sky will likely peek through the wispy edges. And the greenery in my garden is reflected in the lower right edge of the “cloud”.

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

Susan Abbott landscape watercolor studies
A richly colored land and skyscape in watercolor by painter Susan Abbott

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. 

Dean Mitchell landscape watercolors
Dean Mitchell’s tender handed watercolors always stop my frenetic eye, and calm the way I look, see and absorb the scenes he paints. Look at how subtly he painted the clouds above the horizon line in this one.

Painting Different Types of Clouds

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 clouds really well. What do you think about that?

If you’ve found other watercolor cloud painting tutorials beyond the ones listed in this post above, please share the links in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you in the next post!

Belinda

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.  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.

orange and pink sunset watercolor clouds - reference photos to practice
Sunset Hot Coastal Clouds
painting watercolor clouds - reference photos to practice
Painting these clouds in watercolor would be a challenge, but they’d also be a load of fun if you mixed the media and used pastel on a watercolor for them, yes?
Click the kitty to visit this free online mini course – Six Tips to Paint More

Art Quote

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.

Dana Gioia
watercolor clouds - reference photos to practice
A storm moving in. What colors would you mix to paint the undersides of these clouds in watercolor?

15 thoughts on “Painting Clouds in Watercolor – Tips and Resources”

  1. Pingback: Watercolor - Bunny's Tutor - and What's the Best Size for Paintings? - Belinda Del Pesco

  2. I too undertook a “quest’ for clouds not long ago… and indeed it can be exhaustive … some of the links you suggested i actually had done… and i am about to “teach” a Watercolour session soon and … have never considered myself an expert on the subject … my “cop out” is that the sky … is a supporting character to the main event of your focus… the barn… the field… and so most of my skies are … wimpy …it has given me cause to … review some of your extra links and encourage more interesting skies! Thanks !

    1. Hi Carla, I’m glad you’re interest in “un-wimping” your skies and clouds is renewed. I am the queen of talking myself off the mountain hike of This-Is-Hard. Years ago, a yoga teacher trying to get me to stand on one foot – and hold Vrikshasana told me “If it’s hard to do, that just means you need to do it more to strengthen your weak parts.” Boy, was she right. I’m looking at clouds this week with much scrutiny. I wish you leaps and bounds of success in your teaching and your own mastery.

  3. laurelle cidoncha

    Thank you, Belinda. So many wonderful tips and resources in this post and inspiration to try to paint clouds in watercolor!

  4. Linda Miller

    I simply enjoy your posts so much. Your timing is perfect as I’m really trying to figure out this cloud thing. I’ve photographed so many seasonal skies here in the Midwest that I want to paint. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Hi Linda, I bet the cloudscapes you’ve captured in the midwest are just stunning! Yayy for you to launch a cloud painting campaign. I hope you have so much fun, and the results of your experiments lead to a solid feeling of accomplishment in your practice!

  5. Bob Stewart

    Thank you for your lesson and valuable information. I am just getting back into watercolors. Good timing.

    1. Hi Bob! I just heard from Diane Saturday night that you’re getting back to watercolors, and I’m so glad to hear it! I hope some of the colorful coastal cloudscapes this Fall make it into some of your work. See you soon!

  6. Thank you for revealing all the different ways to approach clouds and how using RESTRAINT is so important! I have been guiding a group of retirees with watercolors, and this particular post will be very helpful to show that there are many ways to approach this. Your work is so lyrical and beautiful. Again, thank you!

    1. Hi Mary Liz, I’m so pleased to hear that the content of this post is helpful! I hope your students take great delight in playing with their paint, with an emphasis on fun and happy accidents with mingling watercolors! Thanks for your compliments on my work! 🙂

    1. Hello Cristiane! Thanks for your kind feedback. I really like Dana’s quote too, and I think it applies to artists as well. And musicians! What a connection we all have to each other. 🙂

    1. Hi Carol! The School of YouTube is amazing, isnt it?! I’m glad you love it as much as I do. Anything that makes us smarter is okay by me. Happy painting to you, and don’t forget to suspend a few cotton balls to practice! 🙂

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