How to Paint Clouds So Your Skies Look Super Realistic

painting clouds

There’s more to painting clouds than loading your brush with white paint and making big blobs in the sky. Remember, there are different types of clouds — throwback to grade school science class! — and each has its own opacity, shape and way to paint it. So whether you want to paint a landscape en plein air or work from a photo, these are the four cloud types to know — and the tricks to keep in mind when making ’em.

Thick, Loosely Formed Clouds

watercolor clouds 1

These cumulus clouds are dense and oh-so-fun to paint when trying to capture an overcast day. You only need a few patches of blue sky to poke through!

1. Sketch

Start by sketching a few jagged shapes. These will be patches of sky peeking out from behind the cloud. Keep these pencil lines very light, so they vanish in the paint or can be gently erased later.

2. Add Water and Paint

Apply a water glaze across the entire sky. Then drop in blue paint within your pencil sketches. The color will flow beyond the pencil lines and crease light wisps of blue.

3. Add Darker Blues

Let the painting dry about halfway before dabbing more blue into these same areas. Don’t worry about making this super even — you want the color to be natural. Use different water-to-paint ratios to get darker and lighter areas of blues, and remember there are no set rules here — just keep adding more color until you’re satisfied with the painting. (Bonus: if you add too much blue, it’s easy to lift off the color.)

Big, Billowy Clouds

billowy watercolor clouds

You know those lazy summer days, when you look for shapes in puffy clouds as they mosey across the sky? That’s what we’re talking about here, and these classic clouds are super simple to paint.

1. Sketch

Keeping your pencil lines super light, start by sketching out your cloud in a basic oval or circle shape. Build in more detailed edges, then draw light lines within the cloud to indicate the billowy hills.

2. Paint the Sky

Lay a water glaze around the cloud, keeping the cloud itself completely dry. Paint the sky your desired shade of blue. Let dry.

Pro Tip: When you drop in the color, it’ll spread to the wet areas, so it’s vital that the cloud stays dry. You can apply masking fluid to the paper before you begin painting, which will prevent the areas you want to keep white from being accidentally covered in paint.

3. Add the Details

Once the painting is completely dry, it’s time to work on the cloud. Give it depth by adding a light gray wash to define the billows (see arrow 1 in the image above).

To round it out, wet an area just outside of the hills and drop in a small amount of gray. Immediately smooth the edges with your brush (see arrow 2 in the image). That’s it!

Dramatic Cumulus Clouds

dramatic watercolor clouds

These clouds are perfect for those dramatic, sweeping landscapes you see right before a storm rolls in. The key to painting stormy skies is to layer dense, dark areas with bright, white ones.

1. Sketch

Draw the basic cloud shape, just like you did with the big, billowy cloud. But this time, really stack it — lightly outline lots of hill-like formations around and inside the cloud.

2. Water Glaze

Add a water glaze to your entire sky area. But unlike the billowy cloud, allow some of the water to flow inside the cloud.

Add the blue paint. The water inside the clouds will pump up the drama of your painting (see the arrows in the photo above). Keep it loose and see what happens — remember, you can always lift any color you don’t want.

Wispy Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are high-level clouds that go hand-in-hand with fair weather. So when you’re painting those sunny landscapes , turn to these two methods.

1. The Blue-Over-White Method

cirrus watercolor clouds

Apply a water glaze to the sky, then drop in a few light swirls of blue paint. Let it dry about halfway before adding more swirls of blue. Keep repeating this process of adding color and letting the paper semi-dry, as it’ll keep the edges soft and prevent the color from looking flat.

2. The White-Over-Blue Method

wispy watercolor clouds

Paint a blue wash over the entire sky and let dry. Then, mix a little water with white gouache paint and brush it onto the sky. Soften the hard edges with a paintbrush filled with water.

Varying Your Medium

charcoal clouds

The cool thing about painting clouds is the basic methods can be applied no matter what your medium! For example, check out the above cumulus cloud done in charcoal. Both the sky and cloud are done in horizontal strokes, but the pressure was varied to create depth through light and shade.

Now go outside and capture those skies!

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3 Responses to “How to Paint Clouds So Your Skies Look Super Realistic”

  1. Steven Reiss

    I'm a unique case. I am a retired toy designer and painted technical subjects like aircraft, etc. as a problem is "loosening up" clouds always have a hard edge to them. I've watched some other techniques on you tube which explained the concept of painting clouds BUT, in practice so far, I'm not satisfied.......

  2. Elizabeth Ludick

    Interesting, your painting methods

  3. Sheila r hanson