Updated: Mar 15, 2021
One time while out painting a landscape I decided to put a few clouds in at the last minute. Well, they looked flat. I decided they needed some help. Started piling the paint on the rectify the problem. By the end I had so much paint on the canvas it fell off the easel. The grass that stuck to it looked kinda funky at least on the bottom part…. The clouds… well not so much. I have practised lots since then and here are a few things have learned.
The sky is key to painting a believable landscape. It determines everything that is about to happen in your painting. Something as simple as the quality of light radiating from the sky will influence all of the other elements in your landscape. Painting an empty sky is like making peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly, boring. So let’s get to it and here are 10 tips for painting clouds that will make your landscape a little fluffier.
#1 - Before we get to the clouds let’s have a good look at where these fluffy balls live. The sky. Remember, the sky is lighter and cooler at the bottom and darker and warmer at the top. Also consider the side to side differences, with the sky being warmer toward the sun and cooler away from the sun. In this Edgar Payne painting notice the cooler sky colour at the horizon and how much warmer it becomes at the top. These rules are not hard and fast. They change depending on the light (storms)and the time of day. In the evening with the low sun, the sky can actually the warmer at the bottom than at the top
#2 - Use your clouds as a design tool. Work with them as a compositional aid as opposed to just painting in some randomly placed clouds. Consider the placement of them, their size and utilize some directional pull. Use can use them to guide the viewer around, leading them where you want their eyes to go.
#3 - Clouds follow the rules of perspective. This is where I see many artists fail. They just paint fluffy clouds without any consideration to where they are floating in relationship to the land. Clouds are boxes that have a bottom, top and sides. They should be in perspective with the rest of the painting. Connection to the ground plane horizon line is key to painting more believable clouds.
#4- Paint the clouds first then put the sky around them. If you paint the sky first then paint the clouds afterwards, they will have a pasted-on look. Painting the sky after the clouds will give an appearance that the sky(air) envelopes the cloud making it more believable that the cloud is floating in the sky.
#5 - Remember the rules if you’re painting with acrylic or oil. Always paint from thin to thick. Thick paint tends to look like it's coming forward in the picture plane and thin paint tends to recede. If you want the bulky part of the cloud to look puffy make it thicker and bulkier in the body of the cloud than the thinner edges.
#6- Whites and near whites get warmer, a touch darker and slightly duller the farther they go back into the picture plane. This means that clouds on the horizon are much warmer than clouds higher up in the sky. The shadows are not only cooler near the horizon they also get lighter and duller. Clouds are generally round or spherical in shape, meaning the lightest part of the cloud or highlight will not be on the edge of the cloud but within the central mass of it. The only time you will have the lightest part of the cloud on the edge, is if you’re painting clouds that are directly between you and the sun, This is when you will get the mysterious “silver lining” surrounding a cloud.
Notice how the highlights are contained within the cloud, not on the edge. This follows the sphere rule.
In this James Reynolds painting, the highlight in the cloud is not on the edge it's contained well within the cloud.
#7 - The trick to getting a cloud to look floaty is to capture its individual gesture (the individual uniqueness) of each cloud. I find the easiest way to do this is with a pencil and sketchbook. I typically draw one or two clouds when they are right there in front of me. I note the gesture of the cloud as well the shadow side with a quick line drawing, and when it comes time to paint in some clouds, I refer to these drawings (even though the clouds have long gone floated off and rained on someone's picnic) and transfer this sketch to the canvas. I can still use the clouds that are in front of me for reference as to the value and colour reference but I use my drawing to get the gesture.
#8 - The bigger the cloud the bigger the brush. Do you want a giant puffy cloud in your painting? Be prepared to swing a big brush. Nothing says bouffanty like a big, fat, wide brushstroke. This will make your clouds look as yummy as Calgary Stampede cotton candy. (Giddy-up)
#9 - Clouds are always on the move. To add more movement to your clouds look for the “point of wind”. Clouds are constantly jockeying for position up there, yet all is not chaos. They have a sense of order as they emanate from a starting point and travel along “lanes of air”. Go outside on a cloudy or semi-cloudy day, look up and locate clouds closest to you, then follow them down and away, stretching off to the horizon. These lines or ”lanes” not only aid in fun cloud movement but implies a stronger front to back sky perspective. The point of the wind suggests movement on its own, and if you get this right in your painting, your clouds will be dancing on your canvas.
Sections of clouds illustrating the ‘lanes’ or point of wind.
#10 - Values values values… and I don’t mean investments. Even though clouds and sky have a myriad of colours and colour combinations, it’s still about getting the values correct. Get these values right, and you will have clouds dancing around up in the singing sky
Remember, though colour gets all the credit, the value does all the work. Here are a couple of other free bonus cloud tips for you.
- Quite often the shadow side of the cloud is the same value as the sky that surrounds it.
- Cloud shadows never get (I repeat never) darker than the ground plane.
- The busier the cloud the more pronounced its base. Just think of and visualize those epic storm clouds we’ve had this summer!
- The smaller the cloud fragment or wisp is the darker it will get. Remember they are small and not as bulky as its parent cloud, so the darker sky behind the wisps shows through causing this darkening.
- Consider not only the vertical graduations in the sky, cooler and lighter at the horizon and warmer and darker at the zenith, but let’s not forget the front to back aspect of the clouds. You want some clouds in front of other clouds, be sure to overlap some of them to create more interesting layers. The temperature of the clouds also changes, warmer nearer the viewer and cooler as the cloud recedes into the picture plane, pretty please.
We did a live demo on everything covered in this newsletter that is still available to watch for free on Swinton's Facebook page -> Here is the link
As well! Here Is a quick time-lapse video of how to paint clouds:
- Hope this helps you stay fluffy,
Your friend in art,
Don’t forget to look at the Alert Bay workshop, It sold out last year. All outdoors, all safe, and already half full.