Clouds are a staple of landscape painting. You can use them as the key feature or idea of your painting (see Issac Levitan's Clouds above); to create a sense of moody atmosphere; or simply as a composition tool for their dynamic shapes.
Many artists struggle to paint them. That's perhaps due to their transient, organic, and everchanging nature, making it difficult to apply any step-by-step rules or processes. In this post, you'll find some guidance on how to paint clouds. I cover:
Clouds are transient and fleeting by nature, but that doesn't mean you should ignore all ideas of form and structure. Quite the opposite. Ideas of form and structure help you organize all the information and detail into something convincing on the canvas. The challenge lies in capturing these ideas without compromising the inherent transience.
Your goal is to see clouds as basic shapes and forms just as you would a tree, rock, or person. Steve Huston calls this “box logic”. What would the clouds look like if you could only see cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones?
Try it on the following painting by Ivan Aivazovsky. What do you see in terms of shape and form?
Here's what I see (below). I've used boxes, but any simple shapes or forms will do—as long as it's simple! I took it a step further by suggesting the light and dark planes (the dark planes are hatched). A secondary benefit of seeing clouds as basic forms is it helps you conceptualize ideas about light and shadow. Otherwise, you will need to rely almost entirely on observation, and perhaps a bit of guesswork.
In this above example, I translated the clouds into basic three-dimensional forms. But sometimes shape is more appropriate, especially when the clouds are tightly compacted in the sky, diminishing any sense of distinct form. (Note: Shape is basically a flat, or two-dimensional version of a form—a circle is a flat version of a sphere).
Take Isaac Levitan's A Stormy Day (below). Clouds dominate the sky, so much so that it's impossible to make out any distinct forms. Depth is implied by the overlapping shapes, rather than the rendering of three-dimensional forms. Shape is therefore more effective in simplifying all this detail.
And don't forget negative space (the areas between the clouds—typically blue sky). I've indicated the negative space in the below painting.
As with many aspects of painting, there are two ways you could deal with positive and negative space:
- You could paint in the clouds first (positive space) then fill in the gaps with color (negative space); or
- You could start with the blue sky (negative space) then fill in the clouds (positive space).
Most aspiring artists ignore option 2—they focus on painting things, rather than the area between things. There's nothing wrong with this approach, but sometimes it's more effective to focus on the negative space first.
Negative space also acts as a useful audit tool to check if your positive space is correct. For example, say you are painting clouds in the sky. You start by outlining the shape of the clouds. If your drawing is correct, then the shapes representing positive space should match the reference. If not, there's something wrong with your clouds. Errors often require a change in your perspective before they rear their heads.
Try it yourself. Go outside on a cloudy day and try to "see" the clouds as basic shapes and forms. Do this enough and it'll eventually become second nature—you will be seeing the world as an artist.
(Note: This section applies more so to clouds that have a distinct form, with light and dark planes, rather than clouds that are better depicted by a flat shape).
Once you see clouds as basic shapes and forms, you can apply the laws of light as you would to any object.
To keep things simple, assume there's one light source—the Sun. Each cloud equals a simple form, be it a box, sphere, cylinder, cone, or combination. For each change in plane, there's a change in lightness. Planes facing towards the light will be lighter than planes facing away from light. Areas in light should be distinct from areas in shadow. Be selective with your highlights and dark accents—less is more!
The position of the Sun in relation to the clouds determines which planes are hit by light and which are in shadow. The nature of the light (strong, weak, direct, diffused, warm, cool, etc.) influences the level of lightness (value) and color temperature.
Get these fundamentals right, and most of the hard work is done. You'll be free to add your own creative flair without compromising the sense of realism, whether that be energetic brushwork, subtle color transitions, a burst of light, or a rich, dark accent. See John Singer Sargent's study below—it's oozing with creative flare, but the fundamentals are strong as always with his work.
I'll run through some examples of how the laws of light apply to clouds, starting with Sargent's Palazzo Labia. Venice. Sargent didn't mess around with subtle mid-tones—he kept things simple with distinct highlights and shadows. This plays well with the painting's loose style (highly rendered clouds would surely look out of place, no matter how skillfully painted).
Below is a stunning painting by Claude Monet. The sky is a battle between clean yellow highlights and scattered shadows. I can't easily explain how the laws of light work in this painting, but it works nonetheless (as is the case with many great Impressionist paintings).
Here's a moody seascape by Joaquín Sorolla. Instead of painting every detail, Sorolla picked a few important highlights and dark accents to do all the talking. Also notice the positioning of the highlights close to the dark accents, making them both pop.
John Constable was always dramatic in his depictions of clouds and the landscape in general. He used his creative license to really push the highlights and shadows, exaggerating the effects of light.
In terms of color, clouds are typically limited to white, grays, and other weak tones. Rarely will you see clouds bursting with color, bar maybe a vivid sunset. That doesn't diminish the importance of color, it just means you need to be restrained in your use of it. Think subtle color transitions rather than bravado statements like you see in Vincent van Gogh's work.
Your color selections will depend on factors such as:
- The nature of the light (how warm or cool it is).
- The overall key (value range) of your painting. In other words, how light is your lightest light, and how dark is your darkest dark?
- The overall color theme of your painting. You may decide to use colors that reflect the overall theme rather than the colors you actually see.
Whatever you do, don't default to pure white for lights and dull blue or gray for darks. Have a strategy; think critically about what colors you should use and why. If you're ever in doubt, fall back to observation.
In my sunset painting below, the colors I used for the clouds were based on observation and the overall theme of the painting. I used more blue than I actually saw, as it fit in better with the theme and created a sharper contrast against the sunset's warm colors.
Gesture typically refers to the movement and flow of the human body. Portrait painters understand it deeply. But nature also has a gesture; it’s just hidden behind all the details.
Capturing nature's gesture will inject life and movement into otherwise static and flat clouds.
A simple way to understand gesture is to look at a cloud, or a group of clouds, and try to capture it using a single line. Think of this as nature's gesture line. Build structure and form around it and let it guide your brush.
I've suggested the gesture line(s) in the following paintings. Keep in mind, this is not an exact science; it's just how I perceive gesture and movement.
Try it yourself. Where is the gesture in Levitan's painting below?
Barring some stylistic choices, you will typically use soft edges for clouds, with hard edges reserved for highlights and perhaps dark accents. That’s because clouds are soft, fluffy, and transient by nature. Overuse of hard edges can make your clouds appear rigid and solid.
In Constable's Rain Over the Sea, hard edges are only used in the sky for some highlights; everything else is soft. The sea on the other hand is filled with hard edges, giving a sense of relative solidity (even if it is water). The horizon line is also represented by a hard edge, separating the sky and sea.
It doesn’t matter how well you paint something if it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the painting. How often do you see paintings where the clouds, although meticulously painted, appear like cardboard cutouts glued onto the painting.
Every mark you make on the canvas must be done with the intention of improving the painting as a whole. This runs true for clouds, trees, rocks, water, people, edges, colors, shadows, or any part of the whole.
The key is to stay in touch with the big picture rather than getting lost in the details. Step back from your painting often and purposefully. Wander around. Interrogate it. Look for problems with the big picture, don’t hide from them. (If you spend all your time painting with your eyes glued to the canvas, you might overlook the glaring mistake that can only be seen from afar).
Think about many of the great Impressionist works—from up close, you see an incoherent mess of color; but it all comes together as you step back. The Impressionists painted with the big picture in mind. You should do so as well, regardless of your preferred style.
In my painting below, the clouds represent strong shapes in the overall composition. I didn't render them with intricate detail or capture every slight change in color. Instead, I simplified them to fit their role in the painting.
Clouds are a key feature of Gustave Courbet's Calm Sea. But they aren't rendered with fine detail; rather soft edges, simplified brushwork, and compressed values (the lights and darks are restrained). This fits in with the rest of the painting and allows the two boats resting on the shore to command attention.
On a separate note, notice the sense of balance in this painting. The sky, ocean, and shore take up a vast majority of space, yet it's the small boats resting on the shore, and even the ones sailing in the distance, that command attention. An interesting contrast of big and quiet against small and noisy.
In Monet's Impression, Sunrise, the clouds are there for atmosphere, nothing more. There's so little rendering that the clouds blend seamlessly into the rest of the painting.
In Levitan's Vladimirka, the clouds are rendered with rather fine detail, yet the sky as a whole is subtle compared to the land of dark colors and sharp contrast. Notice how Levitan created depth in the sky by picking out a few clouds to detail, effectively pulling them forward in perspective.
Ivan Shishkin's painting below is a great demonstration of relativity. The clouds were painted with intricate detail, powerful highlights, and crisp edges, yet I wouldn't say they're the focal point of the painting. The land, despite taking up less space in the painting, features a similar level of detail, along with dark colors and far greater contrast.
- Clouds are fleeting and transient, but that doesn't mean you should ignore structure and form. Seeing clouds as basic shapes and forms will help you simplify and organize all the information.
- If you cannot make out distinct forms, use shape to simplify the clouds.
- Focus on getting the fundamentals of light and color right first, then inject your creative flair, if at all.
- Your use of color will depend largely on the nature of the light, the overall key of your painting, and the overall theme.
- Much like the human body, nature also has a gesture. It's what will give your clouds a sense of life and movement.
- You will mostly be dealing with soft and lost edges, plus a few hard edges for highlights and perhaps dark accents.
- It doesn't matter how well you paint the clouds if they don't fit in with the rest of the painting.
(If you want to learn more about the principles of art, you might be interested in my Painting Academy course.)