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Watercolor Clouds and Skies: Plein Air Techniques

Watercolor Clouds and Skies: Plein Air Techniques



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John Hulsey shows how to overcome the challenges of building layers quickly for watercolor skies with these color-blending tips.


Watercolor Clouds en Plein air

When painting watercolor clouds, artists generally paint from light to dark, carefully building up tones in successive layers, while preserving the white of the paper where necessary. While I do often work in this premeditated system in the studio, painting en plein air, in strong sun and perhaps wind, demands a slightly different approach if I am to be successful. The main problem that arises when plein air watercolor painting is that wet washes and the paper itself can dry just as I am trying to work a nice graded wash across the sheet. This can often produce unwanted edges and unfinished washes, which then require reworking, losing the very freshness I want. It’s frustrating and may be the reason there don’t seem to be as many plein air watercolor painters out there.

My solution was to teach myself how to work on an over-saturated paper with very intense, wet colors, and to reduce detail to a minimum. This learning period produced many failures. But, each painting honed my ability to more accurately judge the moisture content of my paper as I worked, and served to improve my sense of timing of my washes.

How to Paint Skies

In this gorgeous sky painting demo get insights on the anatomy of sky features like clouds and horizon lines. These skills are important if you want to be able to lay down colors that will blend and mix cleanly, while simultaneously remaining distinct and separate.


You can see how these principles were applied in the orange and blue wash in Ghost Ranch IV (below).

Understanding the Anatomy of Clouds

In Ghost Ranch IV, I wanted to recreate the effect from when I witnessed a storm “pop up” on a clear day and move toward me from the distant mountains. The clouds transitioned from sharp-edged pure white to soft and roiling warm and blue-grays — a perfect subject for watercolor. I was also intent on conveying the vast space that my panoramic view encompassed, with the mountains stepping off into the blue distance. It was calm when I started. But then the wind intensified before I was able to finish, bending my umbrella shaft in half! I didn’t mind. When a painting turns out as satisfying as this one, a few bent umbrellas are worth it along the way. And because this painting was so satisfying to make, below I have dissected the creation process of Ghost Ranch IV, for you to enjoy and learn from. Happy painting!

Skies to Beyond

Understanding how to build drama in your landscapes by painting layered skies puts you well on the way to master artist status. For more great sky painting techniques, check our post on painting clouds at sunset in pastel. Plus get more great info about the types of clouds one may encounter when painting outdoors in this free download.

To see more work by John Hulsey and Ann Trusty visit their website. Then be sure to join The Artist’s Road for more articles, interviews with expert artists and step-by-step demonstrations.


Watch the video: Stormy Clouds Demo u0026 Daniel Smith Signature Grays Review + (August 2022).