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How to Paint Clouds 5 Ways

Clouds are one of the easiest images to recognize in art, even at the most primary level. But let’s take them beyond amorphous shapes in the sky. This tutorial will strengthen your ability to make some lovely cloud formations and enhancements to your artwork.

When you are in the brainstorming stage for a composition that will include clouds, you will need to decide how big a part they will play in the final piece. Are you using them to simply break up the monotony of a vast sky? Or will you need them to be a prominent, detailed subject in your artwork? Once you’ve decided, follow along with these step-by-step guides.

We’ll focus on the cumulus cloud, one of the most common in art. Cumulus clouds come in a great variety of billowing shapes. They are dense and can be nearly all white or have dramatic shadows. We will work on three examples of the cumulus cloud.

1. Thick and Loosely Formed Clouds

This cumulus cloud formation is usually a vast cloud with spots of blue sky showing through. They’re dense — not as wispy as cirrus clouds — and quite freeform and fun to paint. All you have to do to create this dreamy cloud is to paint a few jagged patches of sky.

Step 1:

To keep this easy, I used a plain, white piece of watercolor paper and only blue paint. Start by sketching jagged “holes,” which will be patches of sky that peek out of the cloud. Keep these pencil lines very light so they will vanish in the paint or can be gently erased later.

Next, wet the whole area, including the holes you just drew. While wet, lightly dab a blue sky color right on the holes.

Let the whole piece of paper (or at least the sky area) dry about halfway.

Step 2:

Believe it or not, you are just inches from the final effect! Dab in more blue color in the nooks and crannies created in Step 1. By now, while the paper was drying, the blue color probably spread beyond your original pencil lines — but that is good! It helps create the natural look for the clouds.

Dab color a little unevenly in the jagged “holes.” Some of this color will spread and some will stay put since the paper is partially dry. This is how you want it to work.

Deepen the color in a few spots one more time after this and step back and see the beautiful natural effect.

2. The Billowy Cloud

This is the cumulus cloud that is probably most used in artwork. It’s the cloud that we watch to see what shapes we can identify as it gracefully moves along in the stratosphere. These clouds can be painted very simply or much more dramatically.

Step 1:

Draw a convoluted circular or oval shape. Since I do artwork for children’s books, I frequently keep my clouds edges fairly sharp, as I have done in the example below.  Keep your pencil lines very light so you have a frame of reference and can erase them later.

Draw a few lines like hills inside the cloud to make it look billowy.

Step 2:

Now, wet the sky area outside the cloud, leaving the cloud itself completely dry. Then paint in the sky color.

Step 3:

When the sky area is completely dry, start the work on the cloud.  To give it some depth, add a little gray wash at the front of the most bulging area (see # 1 on the image below).

Wet a little of the area just outside the “hills” in the cloud and dab in some deeper gray color. Smooth the edges gently with your brush (see # 2 on the image below).

3. The Dramatic Cloud

These clouds appear when the weather is changing and on those beautiful, dramatic days. The main thing to remember while rendering a cumulus cloud is to make sure there are dense, bright white areas — especially in the ones that are stacked up and very billowy.

Step 1:

Draw your cloud shape as in the previous cloud. This time, stack it up and add lots of hill-like formations to the outline as well as inside of the cloud.

Step 2:

Wet your whole sky area and, if you like, allow some of the water to spread or flow to the inside of parts of the cloud. This will add a little interest to the overall drama of the cloud (see #1 on the image below).

For this cloud I have saturated some color right on the upper part of some of the “hills” of the cloud. It is just another way to create depth.

2 Ways to Drawing Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are wispy, high-level clouds that usually indicate fair weather. They can be stipples of misty white, marble swirls or even like seafoam. Here are two ways to approach painting and drawing cirrus clouds.

Blue Over White Method

Wet your sky area and dab in swirls of blue. Let it dry a little, then deepen the swirls one more time. Let this dry a little more, and again deepen just a few of the swirls of blue. This process will keep the color from looking flat and keep the edges mostly soft. A few harder edges is ideal, so don’t worry if some areas of your paper dry faster.

White Over Blue Method

For this method, the medium you use needs to apply easily over a finished blue sky.

Here, I painted my whole sky. After, when it was dry, I mixed a little water with white gouache and brushed it on in a few strokes. I re-wet my brush and softened out the hard edges — and that was it! You could even use white pastel.

Vary Your Medium

The basic instructions for all the clouds in this post will work as well with any other medium. Here is a sample of billowy cumulus cloud done with charcoal.

I did the sky and the cloud shading in horizontal strokes, varying my pressure to create enough light and shade.

Even some simple primitive clouds can make for a nice little piece or art for you to enjoy!

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