A student should understand there is no single way to paint clouds.
Every cloud is unique, every skyscape different. As meteorologists are quick to point out, clouds come in several varieties, and they are produced by different atmospheric events.
Understanding a little about the types of clouds and their characteristics will aid an artist in bringing a convincing interpretation to the viewer.
Types Of Clouds
Below are the different types of Clouds that a painter can choose to paint…
Cumulus Clouds typically live at altitudes below 7000 feet. They have distinct edges and are usually puffy, popcorn shaped and white. They tend to develop vertically. They can be loners, but also like to travel in packs or clusters.
Stratus Clouds are found lower than any other cloud. They have an appearance of a grey deck, but they can also be scattered if they are not organized into a solid formation. They have indistinct edges that are not well defined. They also can be found at 7000 feet or less, as they can also make up what we know as fog.
Cirrus Clouds are high altitude dwellers, having bases over 18,000 feet. Since they are so high, they are primarily made of ice crystals. They have a frail, translucent quality with tendrils pointing the direction of the wind at that altitude. They are typically seen during fair weather.
Cumulonimbus Clouds are exceptionally tall and can span all cloud layers, sometimes reaching 60,000 feet. These types of clouds produce lightning and thunder, heavy rains, tornadoes and high winds. They often are seen with large anvil-shaped tops due to the strong winds at the high altitudes.
When White Is Not White
When a person imagines a cloud, they typically think of fluffy white cotton-ball puffs floating lazily across the sky. Painting is all about perception and not necessarily factual representation. Yes, there are times when the clouds appear to be white at first glance. But when the student observes with an artistic eye, he will see variations of grey, blue and many other colors.
Clouds during high daylight have far different colorations than clouds seen near dawn or dusk. At those times, it is no-holds-barred in terms of the colors the artist can use to paint clouds. In those sorts of paintings, the student should plan that the skyscape will be a strong focal point and must consider whether it is the main center of interest, or have a very strong counterpoint to draw the eye to another point of importance in the composition.
The palette an artist uses should harmonize throughout the entire painting, so the color elements that are used in the sky should be repeated or blended with the rest of the painting and so allows it to harmonize with the sky. Remember that color reflects off other objects, and therefore the local color of the object will be affected by the colors in the sky. This may be very dramatic, in the case of a brightly colored sunset reflecting on a calm body of water. There, the student will use quite a bit of the sky palette to paint portions of the water. Other objects that are dark or less reflective may simply need a delicate glaze of the reflected color to lend a subtle hint of the tone, bringing color harmony.
Leave The Glue In The Tabouret
A cloud is not a separate entity glued onto the sky. It is a coagulation of the particles that make up the atmosphere, not a body unto itself. When painting clouds, students have a hard time making the clouds float through the sky. They tend to position it in place and make sure it just does not move. When you paint a cloud, it is like trying to paint a car driving down the street. Somehow, the artist must give the car the feeling of motion, even though he is capturing it for one moment in time. Clouds are ephemeral. They are constantly in motion and just like the car, must be painted as such. The perimeter should not be hard on following edges. They fade away as they give up bits of themselves to the atmosphere as they move. Clouds that have flat bottoms are usually heavy with moisture and will have a more substantial appearance. Those bottoms may have more definition.
Cloud clusters may also have wispy areas in between the individual clouds, or a very large cloud may have holes in it. These are areas where the local color of the sky peeks through and gives less substance to the cloud. A cloud should not be one block of color. They have many surfaces that give the illusion of three dimensions. There will be shadows and highlights to give substance to the complex shape. Think of a piece of popcorn. Examining it will show many crevasses and puffs and round pieces extruding in all directions. Many clouds have those same traits and make interesting subjects in the skyscape. Paint the clouds three dimensionally, but make sure that it stays ephemeral. If you think that sounds difficult, you may not be wrong.
Which Medium Is Best For Painting Clouds?
Any medium can be used to paint successful clouds. There are different techniques that may apply to the different mediums to achieve the best results.
With watercolor, you save the white areas and use color to create the shadows and shapes within a cloud mass. This takes a bit of forethought to preserve the sections of sky that will have clouds in it. Watercolor can be washed out, but it makes more sense to save the area and not waste time trying to reclaim it.
When using acrylic paint, the paint has a relatively short drying time, and once it is dry, it cannot be reconstituted as watercolor can. Blending sky color with cloud color should be done wet in wet to allow the edges of the cloud to intermingle with that of the sky. If the paint has dried, the student may add additional layers, but it is important that the new layer of paint does not appear like a postage stamp.
Oil paints give a luxury of time. However, the artist can fuss and worry an area to death. Overworking can cause the paints to end up muddy, and if the sky in question is a bright or sunny one, it will certainly change the painting’s mood to include drab, dirty colors from over-mixing. When using oil paint, the artist has the option of glazing areas of the painting. This is time consuming, as oil is slow to dry, but the artist can create soft, luminous clouds that seemingly billow across the sky.
Master the Clouds
A student who wishes to paint convincing landscapes should work on learning how to paint sky and clouds. It is very important, as a landscape may be from one-third to one-half sky. Learning to paint a persuasive sky can be half of the skills a student landscape artist needs to study. Practice is imperative to master that puffy, elusive subject.
Painting clouds is like painting portraits. All have similarities, but no two are alike. Go paint some cloud portraits for your next project.