Water in the Sky: Drawing Clouds in Watercolour (Part 1)

Water in the Sky: Drawing Clouds in Watercolour (Part 1)

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If I’m painting a sky in Galway, I’ll be painting clouds. We have big skies here, with no mountains or tall buildings to get in the way. If it’s a hot, sunny afternoon, there will probably be one or two fluffy white clouds near the horizon. If it’s a blustery day with lots of blue sky, there’ll be big white clouds rimmed with luminescence. If it’s a dull day, the clouds will be full of colour. If it’s about to rain, the clouds will have threatening black undersides. And if it’s raining, and I’m in the car or looking through a window, the sky might be a flat pale grey with no features at all, but sometimes you’ll be able to make out a greyish blush in the white nothingness.

The one thing clouds have in common – at least where I live on the west coast of Ireland – is a brighter, whiter top bit and a darker bottom bit. This change in colour is very subtle, and they’re a great opportunity to use wet-on-wet watercolour techniques. How sharp the contrast is from top to bottom of each cloud (or, more correctly, each fluffy bit) is determined by how strong the sunlight is.

Painting a cloudy sky above whatever scene I’m painting always throws the composition into life. I’m not quite sure why this is. The transience of clouds? The scale they offer? I don’t know.

Some time ago, I stopped using a pen to draw the outlines of clouds in watercolour. It’s much more realistic to draw their edge in pencil – or better yet, not at all, painting their edge directly in the blue of the sky above them.

I enjoyed painting the clouds in this sketch, but I would ideally have made the blue part much, much bigger, as the clouds represented only a tiny proportion of the sky. I found it satisfying to paint the line of tiny clouds above the horizon: they follow the same principle as the large cloud, but the dark bits at the bottoms are a bit softer, with a hint of purple in the grey.

Brandy Bay, watercolour by Roisin Cure

I painted the next sketch on the way to pick up my daughter one evening in May. The sky was just too beautiful, or more correctly, the clouds were too beautiful, to let pass without attempting to capture them. In this sketch, I didn’t bother using a pencil at all, but painted the line of the clouds with a brush: by adding the sky very quickly afterwards (while the outline of the clouds was still completely wet) I avoided a hard-edged line. The somewhat unkempt stuff you can see at ground level is an unfinished roundabout, and I pulled off the main road to paint the sky, knowing that no one would stop there. It was strangely peaceful place to paint, with cars whizzing past over my shoulder – no one stops on a roundabout.

After the cerulean blue edge for the outline of the clouds and the large body of sky, I used a brush with a nice point and made outlines of fluffy clouds which could be seen within the main cloud body. Again, you have to work quickly: I used Payne’s grey for these outlines, but was sure to bleed them out towards the white bits before the paint had a chance to settle. While it’s still wet, you can add more Payne’s grey to the outline of the cloud: it’s always darkest right next to the outline. Don’t be afraid to blend up your greys using burnt umber and even a little yellow ochre – it’s up to you to judge the colour of the rainy bits (again, no idea if they are rainy bits).

Clouds Emilys Party, watercolour by Roisin Cure

The next cloudy sky was a different ball game. This was painted on a drizzly day, probably between the showers (I remember I only had about an hour for the sketch). Here, I decided not to bother with any outlines, for the very good reason that there weren’t any. Instead I depicted the darker, wetter areas (? no idea how clouds work) by using very wet paint with a mixture of Payne’s grey and burnt umber. I was looking for a sort of dirty brownish grey – just the colour of cloud you don’t want to see when you’re planning a nice picnic. Because the watercolour will always dry a good bit lighter than when you put it down wet, you can add more paint to the bits that look a bit darker, and you’ll get a nice graduation from darker areas to lighter ones.

Sues House, watercolour by Roisin Cure

The next sketch is not dissimilar to the one done at the roundabout above. It was earlier in the day when I did this, and the sun was strong. What’s different about the two times of day? The transition from dark bits to lighter, white bits is very sudden when the light is very intense. The softer the transition, the more gently it goes from dark (on the bottom part of the cloud) to white (on the top of the cloud), the less intense the light. This was painted in May, which is a wonderful time of year, full of intense sunshine for the most part – it’s probably no coincidence that my sketches of clouds (or where they are the focus of the sketch) all seemed to have been painted in May.

Sunny afternoon at the Pier, watercolour by Roisin Cure

This next painting is a bit unusual. First of all, I painted it eleven years ago, so there are a lot of things I’d do differently. For example, I returned the following day to finish the painting, and the sky had changed completely. Now I would never try to match two different skies, and I am annoyed and disappointed that I did so all those years ago. I’m no meteorologist, but as far as I know the line of clouds with puffs of fluff sticking up near the horizon are indicative of a relatively calm day, while the main body of clouds suggests a blustery, rapidly-changing sky. All the same, the clouds on the whole follow the principle of lighter at the top, darker at the bottom…and don’t leave out the little ragged-edged darker clouds that float in front of the larger bodies.

South Galway Fields, watercolour by Roisin Cure

The message at the end of all this is predictable: the only way to become “good” at painting clouds is to practice. It’s cold and wet here in Galway, but the sky is full of action, and most of us can find a cosy spot somewhere inside from which to try and trap those ephemeral white beauties before they dissolve…into thin air.

(c) Róisín Curé 2014 all rights reserved

Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-

Set of 24

Set of 24

or in the UK and EU :-

Jackson’s Art Supplies
Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Metal Set : 12 Half Pans

I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-

Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Escoda : VERSATIL Kolinsky Synthetic : Series 1540 : # 8

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-

Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Kuretake : Bimoji Fude Pen : Black Medium BRUSH : Maroon pack XT5-10

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

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  1. Isabel

    May 21, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I love your watercolors, and your full-of-live skies. I have been to Galway, some years ago, and now I live in Cantabria, northen Spain, so I know a lot about clouds too. Thanks for your article and congratulations for your beautiful landscapes!!!!

    • Róisín Curé

      May 21, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      Thank you Isabel! I hope you enjoyed your time in Galway! I lived in Asturias and Leon back in the 90s and loved every minute…

  2. janey

    May 7, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Really useful article, thankyou,so glad I followed you xxx

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