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No matter what you’re painting, if you’re outdoors, the sky is going to appear somewhere in your sketch. There’s nothing like a beautiful sky to bring a sense of atmosphere to your sketch, so to speak.
I’m going to show you a few of my techniques for painting skies, depending on the weather. 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.
It makes it easier that clouds have certain attributes in common. One of these is a brighter, whiter top bit and a darker bottom bit. This change in colour is very subtle, and painting clouds is a great opportunity to use wet-on-wet watercolour techniques. How sharp the contrast is from top to bottom of each cloud is determined by how strong the sunlight is.
I hope you find the following useful – and remember, practice makes perfect, so get outside on some cloudy days!
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Hot sunny afternoon, flat blue sky
I like to use a combination of cerulean and cobalt turquoise for a blue sky.If you want to be sure of a smooth finish, it’s a good idea to wet the area first. But you don’t have to. It works almost as well if you don’t bother wetting the page first, as long as you don’t mind a little bit of brushstroke to be seen.
There may be a few fluffy clouds on a hot sunny day. You don’t have to outline them before painting the area around them blue, but if you do, make sure to use the very thin side of your nib – you’ll get a much lighter effect that way.
You can try not making an outline at all, but if you do that, make sure to be quick: if you allow the blue to dry, you will be left with a permanent line of blue across your sky which isn’t very realistic. The best way to avoid a line is to paint the outline in whatever shape you want, then IMMEDIATELY – before the paint has had any time at all to dry – blend it out towards the wide open sky with water. That way it will be soft, and you can always deepen up the blue later with more layers, without risking a hard blue line.
Fresh, blustery day, blue sky with clouds
A good way to suggest a blustery day is to leave lots of white patches in a random pattern. They are not “cloud-shaped” but are more random than that. A good way to achieve this is to spray your area of sky with a spray bottle, making sure to leave bits dry. Then just paint on blue with a large brush (at least a #12) in two different shades of blue – cerulean and cobalt turquoise, for example – leaving the dry areas untouched. The two colours will flow into each other but will not stray into white areas. Lovely and fresh!
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.
The bay at the end of the road I live on, called Brandy Bay. It’s always full of shore birds like oyster catchers, sandpipers, egrets and herons.
This next one is an example of painting the edge of the cloud without drawing an outline in pen or pencil. The sky and the clouds were just too beautiful to let pass without attempting to capture them. 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.
The roundabout where I pulled in is still unfinished, four years after it started.
Drizzly day, grey sky
The next cloudy sky was different. This was painted on a drizzly day, between the showers. 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 by using very wet paint with a mixture of Payne’s grey and burnt umber. I was aiming 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.
This unusual house is one of a number of unusual houses close to the coast near my home in Galway.
Bright, fresh day, blue sky with moving clouds
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 the brighter, 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 in Ireland, full of intense sunshine for the most part – it’s probably no coincidence that many of my sketches of clouds (or where they are the focus of the sketch) were painted in May.
Wild sky with a patchwork of clouds
This next one is a bit naughty, in that it marries two different sessions onto the one page. Nowadays I finish everything in one sitting, and I would never try to match two different skies. 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. Most importantly, the sky speaks volumes about Galway and our capricious weather!
So get out your cerulean, your cobalt turquoise and any other blues you have and paint a blue sky, and get out your Payne’s grey and your burnt umber and mix some gorgeous greys for your clouds!