Clouds and skies are essential components of any landscape painting. Not only does the sky contribute to the overall mood of your piece, but it can also help you to determine the quality of the light, the patterns of shadows, and even the colours you select when composing your painting.
Due to their fine details and ever-shifting nature, clouds may initially seem like a daunting subject to paint. However, once you understand a few basic concepts, they are pretty simple. This guide will show you my technique for painting clouds in gouache, outlined in several simple steps!
To follow along with this tutorial, you will need the following supplies:
300 gsm cold press watercolour paper - Etchr Lab Watercolour Block, 6x6”
Gouache paints: prussian blue, ultramarine, white, black, deep red - Winsor & Newton Designer Gouache
Gouache paintbrushes: Flat or angle brush, large round brush, and small brush- Etchr Lab Gouache Brushes- Set of 8
Palette - Etchr Lab Mini Palette
Water pots (2)
A few general tips before we get started...
Try not to get caught up with painting every detail on the clouds. Just stick with general shapes and values, and the viewer’s eye will fill in the rest!
It is crucial to think about colour relationships when painting clouds. Colour values are never absolute but always relative to the other colours surrounding them. Think about subtle shifts in colour and temperature and try to capture those. Also, keep in mind that things in the sky are rarely actually pure white! For this reason, I only use pure white sparingly to accentuate highlights and never use it to make up the main body of the cloud itself.
Because of the quick-drying nature of gouache, it can be challenging to achieve the smooth edges and blends naturally found in cloud shapes. Try putting a wet paper towel underneath the paper you are painting on to keep your painting surface damp and indefinitely workable.
Step 1: Identify your light source
Before I even start my sketch, I take a moment to identify my light source. This is, in my opinion, the most critical step in creating a cloud painting that is dynamic and believable.
Painting clouds is essentially balancing adding light and shadow, so it’s crucial to understand where the light is coming from. In our reference, the light source (the sun) is coming from overhead and slightly to the left. You can tell because the right faces of the cloud masses are generally in darker shadow.
Step 2: Pencil sketch
The reference shows cumulus clouds, so I lightly sketch the outlines of the fluffy billows in pencil. I’ve also lightly sketched in an area for the mountains and the grass in the foreground.
I like to include other scenic elements and the clouds to add context and a sense of scale. Be sure to keep your sketch light, so it doesn’t show through the paint later.
Step 3: Paint in the sky background
When painting a mass of thick, fluffy cumulus clouds like the ones in our reference, I like to start by painting the gradient of the sky surrounding the clouds. This way, you can use the white of the paper to your advantage when building up the body of your clouds.
If you look at the sky outside, you’ll notice it is never just one flat wash of blue, but rather a gradient of colours that shift in tone based on proximity to the sun.
Generally, the sky gets lighter and cooler closer to the horizon, and the upper parts of the sky tend to be warmer and more saturated.
Begin by adding Prussian blue, a small amount of deep red, and a generous amount of white paint to your palette. Because gouache dries quickly, it’s best to mix all of your colours in advance when painting gradients.
For the middle of the sky, mix a small amount of Prussian blue with white to create a light blue. We want a warmer, more saturated tone for the upper part of the sky, so mix in a small amount of red to give it that warmth.
The consistency of your paint is the key to achieving a smooth gradient. You want it to be thick enough to provide complete opaque coverage but wet enough that it will glide smoothly from your brush onto the paper. Think about the consistency of heavy whipping cream and try to match that!
Many artists find it easier to work from dark to light when creating gradients. Load a large flat or angle brush with the warm blue and apply it in smooth strokes to the uppermost part of the sky.
Next, take your lighter, cooler blue and sweep it across the midsection of the sky. For the lightest area of the sky, add white paint to your brush and blend out the cooler blue.
Step 4: Paint the darkest shadows
Now to the clouds themselves! Look at the reference photo and locate all areas where the shadows are darkest. It is helpful to think of the cloud as a round, three-dimensional object rather than flat colour on paper.
Clouds are somewhat spherical, meaning that generally, the darkest parts of the cloud will be along the edges and bottom of each shape, and the brightest white highlights will fall around the centre of the shape.
For your darkest shadows, mix ultramarine, white, and a bit of red to create a deep purplish grey colour. Using a round brush, outline the edges and undersides of each distinct billow. Make sure your paint is thick enough in this step because we will blend it out later.
Step 5: Add midtone shadows
Now paint in the slightly lighter, mid-tone parts of the clouds. Simply lighten your purplish grey colour for these areas by adding a bit of white. Using your round brush, apply a layer of the lighter grey paint along your dark edges, as you can see in the photo above.
The mid-tone areas will fall next to the darkest shadows in most cloud paintings. You can think of these mid-tone areas as a transition between the dark edges of the clouds and the bright middle areas.
Step 6: Blend edges to create a contour
Once you’ve added your mid-tone shadows, use a round brush to blend out and soften your dark edges. This step aims to create a smooth transition between your dark edges and the lighter colour, resulting in a nice contour.
This step is the key to creating believable, soft cloud edges that add a sense of depth to your painting.
Step 7: Add in smaller shapes and repeat blending
When looking at our reference, you’ll find that each cloud billow comprises many smaller billows. These smaller shapes follow the exact same steps as the more enormous billows - start by outlining them with your darkest colour, then add in the mid-tone areas and blend them together.
You can skip this step if you’d like to keep your cloud painting a bit more abstract.
Step 8: Highlight brightest spots
The next step is to accentuate our brightest highlights. Take a moment to look at the reference again and locate the brightest areas of the clouds.
Load your brush up with pure white paint and dab it onto the areas receiving the most sunlight. Remember, since clouds are generally spherical, these areas should land along the centre of your smaller shapes.
Because the rest of our cloud bodies have been painted with greys and blues, the pure white paint should provide a vibrant contrast. If you find your highlights do not have enough contrast, try adding a touch of lemon yellow to warm up and brighten your highlights further.
Step 9: Add in the rest of your landscape for context (optional)
Clouds can make up the main subject of a painting on their own, but I prefer to add other landscape elements around them to give them some context.
Adding in some mountains and fields in the foreground helps to accentuate the massive size of the clouds. The dark values of the mountains can also add contrast, making the clouds appear brighter white.
Now that you have all the steps, it’s time to give painting these fluffy clouds a try! The more time you spend practising painting clouds and skies, the more intuitive it will become, and soon you’ll be able to put your own spin on them!
Want to try your hand at painting clouds in watercolour? Check out our ultimate guide to painting cloudscapes in watercolour!
Do you have your own tips and tricks for painting clouds? Drop them in the comments below!
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