How to Paint clouds

Painting clouds and skyscapes is one of my favorite things to do. Yesterday it was labor day in the United States, and I ventured out to a Top of the World lookout point in Laguna Beach, CA to go hiking with family, but I was able to steal a few minutes away to do a quick mint tin sized painting.

Plein air painting of a mountain scene and clouds at Top of the World in Laguna Beach, Orange County, CA painted traditionally using oil Paints
A roughly 2in x 3in mini landscape painting showcasing the natural landscape of Orange County, CA done from Top of the World, Laguna Beach

At that time I realized that clouds can be difficult to paint and understand, especially if you are out in the field doing plein air painting with oil paints. 

I want to share some tips and techniques on how to paint clouds and develop a strategy for doing plein air paintings for subjects that change drastically in a short amount of time.

a French easel next to the hand rive in korea, with an empty canvas ready to be painted on

A Plein-air artist’s studio.

Supplies to Prepare

  • A portable painting set with varying colors of oil paint My favorites include Williamsburg’s King’s Blue and Sennelier’s cerulean blue hue, but you can pick any colors you’d like. Consider time of day when picking your paint colors, and make sure you have a variety of white, blues, lights and darks overall.
  • Brushes of your choice
  • Clean Medium
  • Paper Towels
  • Canvas/ground/oil primed paper/any surface to paint on
  • Optional: Easel/something to hold the painting on while you work.
Images of sky studies and cloud paintings by Mackenzie Lee
Various cloud paintings I did of the same location in France on various days and times.

Preparing to paint

 Take stock of the sky. What does the sky look like?

  • Are there wispy cirrus clouds? Cute clouds that look like animals? Is the sky full of puffy cumulus clouds?
  • Are the clouds more flat and have edges that blend into each other like on a cloudy day?
  • Is it sunset or sunrise and you see pinks/oranges and different hues?
  • Is it pitch black outside with faint outlines of clouds?

Prepare your palette with the colors you’ll need

  • Don’t spend too much time mixing colors or laying out paints because you’ll need to work quick to capture the sky. Consider taking a reference photo on a camera or phone just in case.

Select your ground wisely.

  • Only work as large as your brushes, and decide this based on your painting speed and comfort level. If you want to work big, make sure you have big brushes.
  • Make sure you have enough brushes to have one for darks, medium tones, lights and pure whites to help keep your colors clean.
  • If you have an idea of the type of sky you will paint you can pre-tone your canvas/paper a day before.

Step-by-step how to paint clouds in a landscape painting

Looking at this landscape picture, the sky here looks very silvery, and the clouds aren’t very distinct in shapes. I decided to use blues, whites, yellows, and neutral colors when I laid out my palette to paint, it was about an hour and a half before sunset, so I knew I had to paint quickly to preserve the sky.

view of clouds at han rive in korea
view of under a highway overpass looking at at the han river
bridge painting with clouds in progress
landscape painting with clouds in progress
painting in progress korea

1. Draw Basic Shapes

Start with a quick outline using thinner and a neutral/warm brown color to draw the shapes of the mountains, and bridge. I added some color notes to block in the colors for the water, grasses, and painted in the mountains. I quickly painted in the sky alternating between different colors and mixing and adding colors to account for the clouds and sky.

2. Focus on the Sky First

Always try to finish the sky all at once. Don’t do the sky in pieces and come back to it. The light will change, or the clouds will move to a different place and you will end up with a weird painting that contradicts itself. The trick is to try to just paint down the patches of color you see and go as quickly as you can while selecting the most accurate color. Don’t overthink it, and don’t go back and fix stuff if you have other parts of the sky or painting to work on still.

 Make it a rule to finish the sky and what’s touching it first. Paint the other parts of the landscape afterwards, working from top to bottom of the canvas. Be careful not to drag colors onto different parts of the painting, and clean your brush often or use various brushes to keep your colors clean when you put patches of paint on the canvas. (Here I finished the sky and the mountains before moving down to the bridge and then the water in the river.)

3. Push Through it

Block in color and big shapes as quickly as you can.  Try to work fast and be mindful of things with changing light. If you are working on a river and cloud landscape, don’t wait too long to get to the water, because the reflection in the water will change with the sky as well. So paint fast.

4. Make sure you are painting the scene

Remember to double check the sky to see that you are on track. Don’t spend too much time looking at your subject matter compared to your painting, but always take a look back after finishing sections of the painting before moving down to a new area (For this example, I finished the skyscrapers, then the bridge, and kept moving down and adding notes. You can add detail as you go, or add it after you’ve covered all pieces of the canvas in paint.) 

5. Celebrate your achievement

 Congratulate your self on a job well done. If you’ve followed these tips you’re well on your way to journeying as a landscape painter. I would love to see your creations, please share them in the comments! It’s not an easy task, but with practice and persistence, you’ll be surprised on what kind of scenes you can paint fairly quickly.

If you want to see more awesome cloudscapes, check the slideshow below for more cloud scenes I painted in Korea, or check out my series of French skyscapes here. 

More examples of cloud paintings:

Here's some cloud watercolor paintings and oil paintings too.

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