I learned to paint realistic skies with Maria Smirnova

Studies from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies class on Skillshare. February 7, 2023.

I just love skies, as you know! After enjoying last summer’s Cloudscapes class with Maria Coryell-Martin, I recently took two more sky classes, this time through Skillshare, both from Maria Smirnova (@magrish).

I’ve mentioned @magrish on the blog before. In November, I participated in #magrish_challenge_sky on Instagram, where she challenged her followers to paint from her reference photos turned black and white – supplying the colors from their own imagination.

Now I’ve taken her classes Realistic Sunset Skies and Painting Realistic Skies. I recommend taking them in that order if you plan to take them; “Sunset” is shorter and contains some of my favorite technique lessons, with one project. “Realistic Skies” has a lot more projects, so you can get plenty of practice.

Ah-ha moments

I won’t give away everything in the classes, but I do want to write down my “ah-ha” moments so I don’t forget them. Most of these came from Maria’s direct teaching but some are from my observations about my classwork.

Dry-on-wet is an option

You’ve heard of wet on wet and wet on dry, but what about dry on wet? Using the drybrush technique on wet paper can be a bit more defined than pure wet-on-wet, and it really helps with clouds where you want soft edges but maybe not the runaway colors and spidering that can come from painting very wet on wet.

Don’t worry too much about individual cloud shapes.

Blue sky from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 6, 2023.

Particularly when negative-painting clouds. The overall shape and movement is more important than individual shapes.

Don’t worry about going green

Night sky from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 6, 2023.

Sometimes the sky is a little bit green! And choosing colors carefully can minimize it, such as orange and blue instead of yellow and blue, or using a yellow, like Naples Yellow, that doesn’t tend toward green as much as a primary yellow would. For the above painting, I used a mixed orange from Quin Coral and Lemon Yellow, grading into an Indigo and Prussian Blue sky. At first, I didn’t overlap them, leaving a white band in the middle, but it looked unnatural until I pulled the orange up to meet the blue. And yeah, it does go green a little, but I don’t think it looks un-sky-like.

Contrast creates glow

Pink sunset from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 6, 2023.

The Quin Coral I used in the pink part of the sunset looks so much more glowing to me than the most fluorescent Opera Pink, and it’s all because of contrast: the muted, grayish purple/blue clouds above and the black silhouette landscape below. To get muted cloud colors, I mixed up “palette grays” with leftover Quin Coral, sky Phthalo and Ultramarine blues, and some Raw Sienna for good measure.

A complete sky can be painted in one layer

Two-color sunset from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 6, 2023.

Maria Smirnova paints all her skies for the class in one layer (except for optional gouache details such as moons, stars, and city lights). It surprised me that the clouds went onto wet gradients, but why not? Wet paint is a valid way to have wet paper for wet-on-wet. In some cases, when my paper was drying anyway, I waited for it to dry the rest of the way and then added a second layer, but sometimes I was able to be as fast as Maria – even putting landscape details on wet for a soft misty horizon.

Gradient + dark clouds = great sunset sky recipe.

Cloudy sunset from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 6, 2023.

Aside from a couple of the warm-ups (a negative painting blue sky and a plain night sky gradient), the basic recipe for most of these paintings is gradient background + dark clouds. As Maria says, “You’ll be surprised by how many of these you can paint.” Although I think of clouds as being white and fluffy, it’s true that in a glowing sunset sky they often look dark, which is great because it goes well with the watercolor order of operations.

Different cloud sizes give a sense of perspective.

Final project from Maria Smirnova’s Realistic Skies skillshare. February 7, 2023.

In most of these cloud photos, the clouds are smaller and more horizontal toward the bottom, and larger and fluffier/softer at the top. This is a common pattern which can give a cloudscape a sense of three-dimensionality. The gradient and/or cloud movement can also be at a diagonal for added drama.

Class Palette

Because I can’t resist a palette profile, here are the colors Maria uses in the class and my suggested alternatives.

Generally, Maria uses a lot of blue and orange-yellow. This makes sense for skies! The sky is often some shade of blue at least in part, and orangey or earthy yellows can be used to bring warm yellow sunset shades without making green.

SlotMaria UsesSome Alternatives
YellowSennelier – Aureoline (PY40)Any yellow you like for mixing green landscape elements and optionally for mixing oranges (if you don’t have a dedicated orange). I used Lemon Yellow (PY175).
Light Earth Orange-YellowWhite Nights – Naples Yellow (PO20 PW4 PY35 PY42)Any warm or earthy yellow that doesn’t easily go green, e.g. DS Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (PBr7), Raw Sienna (PBr7), Yellow Ochre (PY42 or PY43), a traditional Naples Yellow (PBr24).

To DIY mix this Naples Yellow hue, the formula is orange (e.g. Cadmium or Benzimida), yellow (e.g. Cadmium or Hansa), Yellow Ochre, and white. The white gives it the opacity and chalkiness of a traditional Naples Yellow but I might leave it out for skies. A quicker mix might be similar to Da Vinci’s Naples Yellow hue: Yellow Ochre + deep yellow (e.g. Cadmium Yellow Deep, Hansa Yellow Deep, Isoindolinone Yellow).
Deep Earth Orange-YellowSchmincke – Naples Yellow Reddish (PW6 PW4 PR242 PY42)Same as above, but more reddish. Add red or swap the yellow-orange in the mix for scarlet. This mix is 2 whites, scarlet, and Yellow Ochre.
Earth OrangeSennelier – Burnt Sienna (PBr7)I don’t remember using this one in the course. (But I have Transparent Red Oxide PR101 in this slot.)
Light OrangeWhite Nights – Cadmium Orange (PO20)Benzimida Orange (PO62) is closest. I did not use this color in the course (mixed my own oranges). I can see a yellow-orange being a good alternative to an orange-yellow in this context because it doesn’t mix green.
Deep OrangeSennelier – Orange Sennelier (PO73)Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO71) is a more transparent but similar hue; scarlet can also be used because this is quite a reddish orange. I did not use this color (mixed my own oranges.)
ScarletSennelier – French Vermilion (PR242)Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) or Scarlet Lake (PR188) have similaer hues. For skies, my favorite warm red/pink is Quinacridone Coral (PR209). There’s a point in the class where Maria mixes up a rose/orange mix that I was able to paint with unmixed Quin Coral. I also used it to mix my oranges.
RoseSennelier – Rose Lake (PV19)Any magenta/rose; PV19 is my favorite, but there’s also Quin Magenta (PR122) and Quin Fuchsia (PR202).
MagentaRockwell – Rose Red (PR122)Interchangeable with Rose. I don’t think you need both – I only used PV19 quin rose. That said, I like PR122 for mixing vibrant purples. A violet such as Quin Violet (PV19) or Quin Purple (PV55) might also work here.
PurpleSennelier – Dioxazine Purple (PV23)Mixed purples with Ultramarine + your rose or magenta come very close to this hue. I didn’t use this one (mixed my own). I did use WN Smalt (PV15), a form of Ultramarine Violet, for a gently granulating blue-violet.
Violet-BlueWhite Nights – Ultramarine (PB29)Cobalt Blue (PB28) mixes similarly, but is more of a bright, middle blue.
Sky BlueSennelier – Royal Blue (PB15, PB29, PW6)Phthalo Blue, Ultramarine, and white make a very excellent convenience mix for blue skies; I have all these colors so I typically DIY it. Cerulean Blue Genuine (PB36) is a single-pigment option.
Dark BlueSennelier – Indanthrone Blue (PB60)Ultramarine or Indigo. That said, I think this is a nice option especially for night skies.
Blue-graySennelier – Payne’s Gray (PBk6, PB15, PV19)Indigo or black. A very dark near-black is useful for silhouettes/skylines, to hint at a bit of landscape near the bottom of the picture.
CyanSennelier – Blue Sennelier (PB15:6) aka Phthalo Blue Red ShadePhthalo Blue Green Shade or Phthalo Turquoise, or a relatively bright Prussian Blue (PB27) like Sennelier’s. All these colors have a tendency to go green, but are very useful for the cyan tones in skies. But I can see why Maria goes for the least green-toned Phthalo Blue option – it’s great for skies.
Light CyanRockwell – Sky Blue (PB17)This is a color I’ve never seen before and I’m intrigued! Looks like a light-valued, granulating, very green-toned blue, which makes me think Manganese Blue Hue (PB15) or Cobalt Turquoise (PG50). That said, I’m not sure I saw this blue in the actual class, and so didn’t feel the need to substitute it.

If you’re not sure what colors to use for your blues and yellows/oranges, try making a chart, as Maria does in the Sunset course, with your yellows/oranges along one axis and your blues along the other. You are looking for combinations that don’t make green.


By the time you read this, my Skillshare membership has already run out, but I was happy to be able to check out Maria’s sky techniques while I have the chance, since she’s a sky painter I find really inspiring on Instagram! I enjoyed getting some practice with water control for soft clouds and having the opportunity to think about how to optimize my palette for skies. Like Maria, I really enjoy painting skies as a primary subject, so it might be worth it to ensure my yellows and blues are on point.

2 thoughts on “I learned to paint realistic skies with Maria Smirnova”

  1. Love your skies! I’m approaching the end of a one month Skillshare trial (definitely need to squeeze in these sky classes) and thinking about whether it makes sense to pay for the full year or put that money toward other art classes, like a few months of an Adventure Art membership or some workshops with the Expeditionary Art folks. I’ve enjoyed your posts about the workshops you’ve done – if you have any advice about which route might give more value for the money, I’d appreciate it!

    • I have a lot of personal thoughts about class subscriptions (especially right now because I’m in a mood of cancelling them all), but it’s hard to advise on the value-for-money because it’s so personal and depends on which mental and emotional buttons different services hit for you.

      I know a lot of people find Skillshare invaluable because it’s pretty inexpensive per class if you use it a lot, and there’s a TON of content. If you only have one subscription service, it’s a good option! For me personally, I did not continue with it because even though I found some great classes, I also found it overwhelming. It’s almost like there’s too many options and I felt weighed down by opportunity cost of classes I could be taking, but am not. Like it almost felt like any time I was NOT taking a Skillshare class, I was losing money, and I just don’t want to take classes all that often – I have other things I want to do!

      I really enjoyed Adventure Art Academy, especially the beginner classes. Claire’s style and philosophy really resonated with me. You also get a level of personal interaction with Claire (though monthly meetups and the forum) that made me feel more seen than a bunch of anonymous Skillshare recordings. I subscribed for about a year.

      I’m not sure it really costs any less in the long run, but for me right now, it feels better to pay for individual classes than subscriptions. I tend to be more committed to attending a remote class at a particular time than a recording I could attend anytime, I like the idea of being able interact with the teacher (even if I rarely do). I also feel more relaxed messing around with unstructured art time when I don’t have access to an infinity of classes I could be taking right now.

      I’d say with any subscription service, don’t be afraid to consider it temporary and quite when you find it starts to feel like “should” instead of a “want to.”

Comments are closed.