Skies and clouds in watercolour

Skies, or should we really say clouds, are rather addictive in watercolour! They can add drama, or be a soft backdrop to your landscape.

Here are a few of my top tips:

  • Take care not to make clear blue skies dominate landscapes – they can be flat and boring.
  • Use clouds to balance compositions.
  • Think about where your horizon is – remember the rule of thirds. A central horizon is static and boring, so consider whether sky is important – therefore calling for a low horizon, or less important, possibly calling for a high horizon. This will also help you place your subject where the lines intersect (choose one!)

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  • Clouds and sky obey the laws of perspective. Colours get paler the further away they are. Clouds will appear smaller and less distinct near the horizon.
  • The ground colour can be reflected in the sky. The mood and colour of the landscape is directly influenced by the sky above.
  • Clouds are in three dimensions – they have light and shadow.
  • Cloud edges are generally soft.
  • Clouds are not grey and white! They may contain a hint of pink, yellow and blue and the grey area may be purplish or brownish.
  • Highlights depend on the position of the sun. In early evening when the sun is low, highlights may be underneath and tinged pink or yellow. When the sun is high highlights are on top and may be yellow with the shadows having a bluish tinge.
  • A blue sky is always tonally lighter than the landscape below.
  • If you need a bright hard edge, consider judicious use of white gouache.
  • You can lift rays out with a rubber or a damp brush or a sponge when the painting is bone dry. Use masking tape to get straight edges and make sure they come from one point ie the sun.
  • You may want to paint your sky first to continue behind your subject. You may want to put it in last to unify and balance your painting. Either is right, but just think which will work best for you!

Colours

  • Blue – remember ultramarine granulates – great for storms, but not for clear blue skies. Cerulean and cobalt blue might be better bets (or a mix of them)
  • There is often a lot of yellow in clouds – raw sienna might be a good choice
  • The shadows – Payne’s grey, or ultramarine with burnt sienna or burnt umber might be more interesting
  • Yellow ochre or raw sienna may be good for yellow and reflected sunlight
  • Think about complementaries to produce lively clouds

And a few examples:

Traditional lifting out, having painted on wet paper:

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Chinese white applied first, blue dropped in after:

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Background wash of raw sienna and alizarin applied first and dried, before wet in wet and lifting out as in the first example. The background wash went down into the sea to unify both elements:

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A sky can add drama to a very simple scene (after Painting Nature by Ferdinand Petrie)

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