Painting Clouds: A different technique

I find that clouds can be an interesting part of any painting.  They can project feeling and emotion.  They can be ominous or light and fleeting.  They also can be very fun and satisfying to work on but they are potentially very frustrating when they aren’t looking right or coming together well.  At this point, I’ve never done a painting where the clouds are a major focus of the composition, but rather included as part of the background. Recently, I decided to try out a new technique for painting clouds that I’ve seen a few people bring up a few times.  Here’s how it went:

Painting Clouds Part 1: Pencil Sketching the Clouds

So, we start painting clouds by brushing in a nice base background color for our sky and then sketching in some very loose line work.  Things to pay attention to in this stage are the overall shapes and general composition and making sure that you are not making unnatural patterns in the cloud shapes.  We humans have a natural tendency to find patterns in things and so it requires some diligence to make sure that we don’t paint them into something in nature that doesn’t actually have those types of repetitious patterns.  Doing real life studies of clouds will help in this regard.

Painting Clouds Part 2: Add the middle tone to the clouds

This part is fast and easy.  Figure out what you want your midground color to be and fill in the line work.  Again, this should be fast and loose.

Painting Clouds Part 3: Shadows

Still working fast and loose, here we paint in our darkest color for our shadows.  The general rule is this: nothing in our final composition will be darker than this color, at least in the clouds.  Use the line work as a guide but keep your eyes open for forms that may emerge and use them.

Painting Clouds Part 4: Highlights

As our final blocking-in stage for painting clouds, we now paint in the highlights, following the line work as well as the forms from working on our shadows.  At this point, we should have a good sense of what the cloud shapes and forms will look like in general.  We’re still working quickly and loosely but the ideas should be there to see.

Painting Clouds Part 5: Blending

This step took longer, by far, than any of the others.  Here, we are blending our highlights, midtones, and shadows together to give us our full range of values and work out what the cloud forms are in greater detail.  At this point, we aren’t getting into the very fine details, but this is far more detail oriented than the previous steps.  This is where you can take your time and really work on pulling out the forms of the clouds.  They should feel good and complete in a general way before moving on to the next step.


Painting Clouds Part 6: Refining and Details

Here’s where the finer details come in as we are painting clouds.  First we break up the hard silhouettes and other edges using soft wispy like strokes to make the clouds more believable.  Then we continue adding fine detail throughout the clouds to pull out more specific shapes and forms until we are satisfied with the overall look and feel of our clouds.  Consider any other details which you might want to add to the cloud composition.  I brushed in some atmosphere color from the background, darkened the lower portion of the general cloud form, and added some bounced light to the underside of the larger shadow areas where appropriate.

Painting Clouds Part 7: Refining the Colors

Finally, we focus on the specific color details our background and clouds.  I changed the background to have a greater range of values, getting to deeper, more saturated, blues at the top.  I then tweaked the contrast and values in the clouds until I liked how the highlights and shadows looked.  Finally I took a large brush and brushed even more of the background sky hues over the lower cloud formations to help bring everything together.

There are many ways to paint clouds. There are lots of techniques out there and I think each have their merits and drawbacks.  For a first run through this technique I think it came together pretty well.  I’m sure with a bit more practice I could use this technique to pull out a lot of character from clouds.  I don’t think it’s the quickest way to get nice clouds if they aren’t going to be a main focus, however, if they are going to be prominent or important I think the effort pays off.

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Michael Simpson