How to paint clouds and sky in watercolour – my latest article on painters-online…

I was recently asked by Painters-Online to give my advice on painting sky and clouds in watercolour. Here’s the article. I hope you find it useful…

The most satisfying part of painting for me is always the sky. It is the first part of the painting process after the initial drawing and it always feels great to start getting colour down on the paper or canvas. But I’m also very aware that it’s the sky that could make or break the painting. 

I paint in watercolour, with the occasional foray into acrylics, but my approach with watercolour is far from conventional. For example I unashamedly use Chinese and titanium white, white gouache and ivory black. Sacrilege, I hear you cry! The traditional idea of watercolour dictates that watercolour is a transparent medium and the paper provides the white. As for black, that just muddies colours and makes them greyer – apparently. 

I came to painting from studying art history and consequently it’s my belief that if Turner and Singer Sargent could use white in their watercolours then so can I. As for some of my other techniques, well if you’re a purist then look away, you may be horrified! 

Below is a sky I particularly enjoyed painting and which took up the first few months of 2020 when the pandemic was taking hold. At least I could still visit the seaside in my mind while painting this even if I couldn’t in reality. 

Hastings From The Pier, watercolour, (65x48cm)

This sky totally dictated the rest of the painting. It was one of those blustery summer days on the Sussex coast, when the sun shines brightly through the gaps in the clouds, while the clouds themselves cast their shadow.

I started this painting by studying the reference photos I was using very carefully to get my head round the dramatic sky with its very bright blues, its dark greys and the bright whites. 

If you don’t observe carefully it can be very easy to to get things wrong. The effects in the sky are often almost unbelievable, but If you overdo things the overall result can look unrealistic whilst if underdone the effect will look insipid. 

Those patches of blue were key to this sky, therefore I had to get the colour spot on – darker at the top and more transparent towards the horizon. to achieve this I used a mix of cerulean blue, ultramarine blue and Chinese white.

Another summer sky that demonstrates how I go about painting skies is seen in London from Greenwich Park, below.

London from Greenwich Park, watercolour, (72x42cm)

I’d always wanted to paint this iconic view of London and on one summer’s day when visiting the location in 2017 the sky was exactly what I had wanted. One with all those little fluffy clouds.

I used more cerulean blue than ultramarine blue in this sky and it fades to near white on the horizon.

I started by drawing the clouds in, leaving areas blank ready for painting.

I found a combination of allowing the paper through and using grey and white worked these clouds.

I’m always struck by how the top edge of clouds are much sharper than the base of the clouds and I tried to capture this in the painting. 

A different approach to a summer sky was needed for the A3 size watercolour of Whitstable Harbour in Kent, below, and what a bright blue Mediterranean style sky it was. Yes, those really were the colours, early morning in July 2020.

This time I needed a very uniform blue, fading ever so slightly at the horizon. In this instance I mixed a lot of paint to just the right colour then worked quickly with a very wide brush to get the evenness across the whole sky.

The clouds were painted using pure titanium white in varying degrees of dilution, on the top edge it was applied virtually neat straight from the tube. So, light over dark – the purists wouldn’t like it! 

At the same time as painting Whitstable Harbour, I was also working on a huge 5ft x 4ft canvas using acrylics. This painting, Sunset From Jury’s Gap, below, shows the view from near Camber Sands on the East Sussex coast. 

When I first analysed the reference photos I was going to be using for this painting I wasn’t sure it was a real sky, or if it was the result of photoshopping? Well no, it was real! It’s a still from a video and you have to see the whole video to believe it. 

This big sky in acrylics called for a completely different technique and I brought my mimi-roller in to service to get that even indigo/violet colour.

Those unreal pinky salmon colour clouds were then brushed on over the blue whilst leaving a triangle for the setting sun with that vibrant yellow corner. Working on a large scale like this was a real departure for me and great fun. 

I don’t always paint beautiful summer skies or dramatic sunsets. Below is one I really enjoyed painting in watercolour. It’s called It’s Brightening Up and shows a typical day at Pett Level, near Hastings, on the Sussex coast holding the promise that it’s going to be brightening up soon, and I just loved the light. 

This has been my most popular print to date and people say it’s partly because of the location – a special place for lots of people – and partly because of the light.

It was really important for me to study the sky carefully and to be very subtle with the gradation of the greys, blue/greys and green/greys.

I left the paper blank in lots of areas of this painting in order to capture the brightness of the sun trying to come through the clouds. This brightness was then replicated in the sea where I was able to pick out the sun glinting on the water.

It really was lovely to paint. However, the hundreds (thousands?) of pebbles weren’t going to be, so I enjoyed it while I could! 

Read Nigel’s advice on painting water in watercolour.

My biggest tips for painting skies are to firstly observe the sky and clouds very carefully, then to mix the paint colours accurately and finally to apply the paint very subtly with careful gradation of the colours.

It really is something to keep on trying until you find the methods that suit you. If you’re like me you won’t necessarily follow the conventional techniques and you’ll develop your own.

Colours I regularly use

  • Cerulean blue
  • Ultramarine
  • Chinese white
  • Titanium white
  • Ivory black

Read the article and more from me on Painters-Online here.

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