“Having your head in the clouds, even for just a few minutes each day, is good for your mind, good for your body, and good for your soul.”

– Gavin Pretor-Pinney

“Paintings of clouds are just what the world needs now,” proclaimed a recent piece in a Canadian newspaper on a veritable storm-front of art shows featuring clouds. “When the earth feels like it’s on fire, the sky – ever-changing, yet essentially the same – is a source of comfort and insight. Here’s how the professionals try to capture its chaos in art.”

It’s a fun piece, and the diversity of cloud paintings is unexpected and inspiring. However, it won’t help you paint your own clouds, and so we offer the following practical advice.

Joseph McGurl, Port of Entry, 24″ x 36″ – McGurl is a master of light on water and the clouds above

#1. Use your clouds as a design tool. Number one rule, always. It doesn’t matter where they are in real life, and it’s important not to just put them in randomly. Arrange your clouds strategically in relation to the rest of your painting; use them to balance directional shapes and direct the eye where you want it go. Think of them not as clouds but as shapes in the overall composition to be arranged in terms of placement, size, and directional pull. In Port of Entry, above, Joseph McGurl uses airplane contrails to form a sort of celestial bower or arch over his subject, the statue of liberty of the title. Also, the monument appears smack at the center of the sky’s descending rays of light that fall over it directly and on either side. Coincidence? Don’t make me laugh.

Kathleen Hudson, who teaches her realistic cloud techniques in her own video titled Clouds & Distance.

#2. Some artists paint the sky first, leaving spaces for the clouds. Others paint the clouds first, then put the sky around them. Either way, probably don’t paint the sky and then try to paint the clouds on top of it – it’s too much work. If you’ve painted the sky first and the clouds have a pasted-on look, hit some of the edges with a”dry” (meaning clean, no paint AND no thinner) blending brush (like a fan brush or a filbert). Tickle the edges where the clouds meet the sky, leaving some edges “lost” (blended) and others “found” (harder-edged). And when you do this, aim your brushstrokes and pull your clouds’ edges in the direction the wind is blowing (doesn’t matter which direction, as long as you’re consistent – see #3).

#3. Clouds obey the wind and the light. Just as your landscape has a point of light that the shadows obey, your clouds have a “point of wind” that their edges, direction, and shapes obey. Vary the sizes, shapes, and placement of your clouds, but be pay special attention to angling the edges uniformly, as if the imaginary wind is blowing them all in the same direction. Even though Cindy Baron in the below example uses her clouds to create her painting’s point of interest and to enhance its perspective (see #4), you can tell the wind is blowing from left to right – all the clouds trail off in the same direction. Clouds also have a point of light – see Baron again for where the light and shadows are located in relation to the sun.

Cindy Baron paints clouds in oils and watercolors.

If your clouds are cumulous, treat the puffs like spheres, with a shadow side. Note in the cloudscape by Katherine Hudson below that the highlight appears not the edge but near it, with the clouds’ rounded edges getting less light as their surfaces curve away from the viewer.

Kathleen Hudon, Afternoon Sky, showing her technique for creating volume and treating clouds as 3-D masses

#4. Clouds follow the rules of perspective. All but the wispiest clouds are three-dimensional objects! Think of them as boxes – the bottom is (generally) parallel to the horizon but their tops and sides should be shaped in perspective with the rest of the painting. Entire skies follow the rules of perspective too. Note in the above how Cindy Baron uses her clouds to enhance the illusion of perspectival space, with all the lines converging at the point of the setting sun, which just happens to be going down at an ideal point of division around which the whole rest of the landscape is balanced.

#5. A word about the sky. Some artists swear by a touch of yellow ochre or cadmium orange at the horizon, while others say the sky has to be cooler at the bottom and warmer at the top. Perhaps it depends on the time of day. Everyone agrees though that the sky is darker in value at the top and lighter at the bottom. Think of it as a dome – and in addition to shifting in value, it gets slightly warmer toward the sun and cooler as it “curves” away from it.

There’s a lot more to be said about painting skies and clouds, and these aren’t hard and fast rules. This is painting, after all! There are none! But keeping a few guidelines in mind will at least give you somewhere to start.

Keiko Tanabe paints watercolors that often include fantastic, rhythmic, and dramatically lit skies

By the way, all of the artists featured in this post offer  instruction and demonstration of their methods and techniques for creating exceptional clouds and stunning skies in a Clouds & Sky video compilation of 14 artists and their methods and advice for painting clouds. It’s a full course created for landscape painters, skyscape painters, watercolor painters, and oil painters at any skill level.

May your clouds always be drifting and billowing and maybe even dancing across your canvas and may all your skies be blue.


Appreciation for a Modern Plein Air Pioneer

Louis Sloan, Frost Valley, 1995, Oil on canvas, 54 x 70 inches

Louis B. Sloan was an African American landscape artist, teacher and conservator. He was the first Black full professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a conservator for the academy and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s gone underapprecitated for lots of reasons, not the least of which is he was a Black artist not making the kind of “Black paintings” the politicized art establishment of the 1970s through 2000 expected.

One of his former students has written an eloquent appreciation of Sloan’s art and the man himself. The piece begins: “The snow would be waist high and the temperature freezing or below. Lou would be Eskimo-like with his easel and brushes ready for action. This was a dedicated landscape painter, one of the best on the planet. Because he was such a dedicated en plein air devotee and practitioner, Lou had my immense respect, besides being a super sweet person and a ‘real human being.’”

Read the rest at Painters on Paintings.

Louis Sloan will be the feature of an upcoming issue of Inside Art. Stay tuned.

In the Paint,

Chris