I took a wonderful “Cloudscapes” class from Maria Coryell-Martin, founder of Expeditionary Art / Art Toolkit. Due to a time zone mishap, I missed the actual class, but I caught up on video and had a wonderful time. In two hours, we painted ELEVEN SKIES. I love skies!
All of the paintings in this post are mine, painting during Maria’s Cloudscapes Class (June 2022).
Get in and get out.
Skies come together quickly – only a few minutes, or even seconds, of actual painting time. That’s why we could do so many!
Skies are almost always painted wet-in-wet, and the first step is painting the entire paper with clean water. Maria used a large, flat Princeton Neptune brush (I used a large oval faux squirrel brush). The same brushes can be used for applying the color, or a large (like size 12) round or dagger brush for more intense color. Small brushes, like 8 or less, are harder to use even for small paper (we worked on 4×6 scraps) because you have to cover so much ground evenly.
Skies are backgrounds.
Typically you will paint more than the sky (though this one is an exception and mostly we didn’t in this class), so it’s okay for them to be simple!
Using the sky colors in the foreground mixes can be a neat way to harmonize with the sky. In this simple landscape, the sky is Cobalt Blue, and the greens were mixed from Cobalt Blue and MANS or Cobalt Blue and Nickel Azo Yellow.
Another hack to turn your sky into a complete painting is painting a dark silhouette foreground like the ridgeline in the previous painting (a hack that I also had figured out in No Plan, No Problem: Intuitive Watercolor Without Planning Ahead!) And you can also use your same sky colors to mix up a gray/black for the silhouette color!
Know your clouds.
You can go way down a rabbithole on this, but I think the most important thing to know is that there are different shapes and types of clouds that correspond with different weather conditions and may require different painting techniques.
- Cirrus clouds are the long streaky ones, with little shadow and soft edges. Moving quickly high in the atmosphere, these indicate wind and changing weather.
- Cumulus clouds are the puffy, fluffy ones with a flat, shadowed based. Hanging low in the sky, these are usually found on a fair-weather day, although they may develop into stormclouds (cumulonimbus).
- Stratus clouds are the lowest in the atmosphere, usually generally uniform in color and often accompanied by light rain. This category includes mist and fog.
There are tons of others including mixes and subcategories, but for now, I’m focusing on correctly using these three terms!
Make gray mixes with offbeat primary triads.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find “the perfect gray” and trying to make ideal grays with complementary pairs, but it’s actually so much easier to make grays with red/yellow/blue triads. You have two levers to pull if it’s too cool, too warm, too yellow, too green, too purple, etc… Just keep adding stuff! I also love how rough mixing can create spots of different colors within the gray, especially if you use granulating colors.
For bright and fluffy cloud shadows, such as the ones in the cirrus clouds, Maria recommended a mix of raw sienna, quinacridone rose, and cobalt or ultramarine blue. I used Daniel Smith Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, Da Vinci Red Rose Deep, and Da Vinci Cobalt Blue. This mid-value gray can be adjusted toward muted purple, coral-gold, or cyan-green, depending on how you balance the component colors.
For dark and stormy clouds, Maria recommended a mix of Deep Scarlet, Burnt Umber, and Indanthrone Blue. I used Perylene Maroon, Transparent Brown Oxide, and Indanthrone Blue.
Paint around your whites
Maria painted most clouds by lightly sketching them in pencil and then painting around them. As you can see, I had trouble with hard edges in this method, but I found it much easier on the whole than using a white resist. I just had to work on softening my edges.
A blue sky is more purple at the zenith, and more green at the horizon.
I noticed this also when I wondered What’s the best blue watercolor for the sky?
Diagonals are a useful for a dynamic composition and a sense of movement.
Sky paintings can be quite abstract.
Don’t worry if it ‘doesn’t look like anything,’ skies are like that. Abstract paintings inspired by the sky are great on their own. In a more ‘realistic’ or representational painting, it is more the foreground details that makes the sky look ‘sky-like.’
Paint in layers.
One way we were able to work so many paintings in a short time was to paint one layer, then set it aside, do something else, then come back. This one started as a layer of plain yellow grading to white, and the orange was added as a second layer, and finally the transparent red oxide “sea” as a third layer.
(Pro tip: As soon as the paint starts to dry, stop and let it dry completely before attempting any fixes or additional layers – otherwise you’ll get hard edges instead of smooth gradients and soft clouds.)
Maria made me feel better by confiding to us that she also struggles to get straight horizons, as I obviously do!
Leave gaps to let luminosity shine through.
I just loved the luminous sky in this one. I’ve often tried to get that “orange break in a gray cloud” look but always struggled with it.
The key here is layers, again. The first layer was a pale gradient of Monte Amiata Natural Sienna to white. Gray clouds were a second wet-on-wet layer applied only after the first layer had completely dried, and leaving gaps for the previous layer of MANS to shine through. The gray is mixed from MANS + Indanthrone Blue (the only colors used in the painting!)
I think value contrast is another important component for this effect. The first layer is pale and the second layer is dark, contributing to the appearance of a “glow” where the first layer “shines through.”
Paint with joy.
I just love the boldness, simplicity, speed, and color of skies, so I found this process extremely joyful!