Art tips: Creating clouds

Detail of cloud painting

^ Detail from a new commission (2022)

Clouds are often said to be tricky to paint. When I first started painting landscapes in oil in the late noughties, the clouds were always the scariest part. I dreamt of painting the most beautiful fluffy clouds and despaired at the leaden blobs that manifested in front of me.

But at some point in my painting life, people started commenting on how much they liked my clouds. And while I certainly didn’t agree with their generous praise back then, the compliments gave me confidence to keep trying.

These days, clouds are one of my favourite things to paint. I’m proud of my clouds. So much so, that I even posted cloud porn close-ups on Instagram the other day. So, what are my artist trade secrets to creating clouds?

1. Play, play, play 

Mindset is everything. If you keep telling yourself clouds are hard, you’ll paint hard clouds. Don’t practice, just play. You don’t get light and fluffy unless your intentions are playful.  

2. Embrace the unpredictability

The fun part of watching clouds is how unpredictable they are. The shapes shift and morph as we watch. Painting clouds needs to be equally unpredictable. You’ve got to embrace the spontaneity of form and let the paint morph its way. Don’t overwork them.

3. The sky’s the limit

Good clouds need a good sky. Pay attention to where the dark and light, grey and bright areas are. Get the depth of the sky in before you add the clouds and you’ll have a good base to work with.

Detail of cloud painting

^ These clouds are primarily created through brushwork (with a bit of finger painting thrown in to the mix) – detail from a new commission (2022)

4. Wet or dry

Depending on the weather conditions you’re painting, you might want the sky to dry completely first or you might want to paint wet on wet. The thickness of your paint can be deciding factor too. Mostly, I find it best to start my clouds when the sky is still wet so that the ambiguity and continuity of cloud and atmosphere can be achieved. I usually let the first couple of cloud layers dry before I come back and build up the forms and, eventually, the way that the light catches and illuminates the clouds.

5. Applicators

Any thing goes. Every now and then I get a penchant for a particular paint brush that seems perfect for clouds. But to be honest, the more I experiment, the more cloud brushes I seem to own. Round brushes can be good for dabbing on cotton wool clouds and angled ones good for creating a sense of movement. Some paintings call for bold palette knife streaks, some gently brushed wisps, and others well-rounded pouffes with a soft filbert brush. Plus, I know from my Instagram artist community that I’m not the only artist who finds a bit of finger painting works really well for clouds. Whatever the tool, keep your application gestures soft and playful. 

Detail of cloud painting with streaky sky

^ This streaky seascape sky uses a combination of brush and palette knife application – detail from "Tipple" (2022)

6. Thick or thin

The amount of paint applied is perhaps more important than the tool you use. You’re not going to get wispy or fluffy if you lay it on too thick. I often work with a primary applicator and then at least one secondary dry brush for clouds, using this to blend and disintegrate form. A dry brush is often a great way to achieve a bit more transparency between the clouds and the sky. And of course will work differently depending on whether you’re working wet or dry (see 4 above).

7. Keep it clean

I’m a messy painter but I take extra care with clouds. It’s important to add a bit of colour to clouds to enhance the sense of light and atmosphere in a painting. But, the tiniest hint of colour goes a long way and too much can ruin the effect. As clouds are often one of the lightest parts of a landscape (both in weight and tone), painting out too much colour is tricky. Always check how much colour you have on your brush. If you’ve inadvertently picked up too much colour and applied it to your clouds, it’s probably better to lift off the excess colour than to try to hide it through blending.

Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have cloud tips of your own or if you find any of these tips useful. If you try any out and post your creations on Instagram, tag me (@jeannelouiseart) so I can see what you tried. 

P.S. Some of the new clouds featured in this post are details from a new commission that I’ll be revealing in my September posts. Watch this space!

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