How to Paint Different Types of Clouds

Man Painting Wall

Javier Pina/Barranquilla Colombia/Getty Images

Painting a stormy sky with its dark, dramatic clouds or the pinks and reds of a sunset is very appealing. A little knowledge about the common cloud forms and their characteristics will help you to capture these scenes and enable you to add credible clouds to any painting.

How Clouds Are Formed

Although it's invisible to the naked eye, the air around us contains water vapor. When air rises, this cools the water vapor, which then forms droplets or, at a high altitude, freezes into ice crystals. This is what we see as clouds. Slow-rising air creates sheets of cloud, while fast-rising air creates cotton-wool lumps of clouds.

How Clouds Are Named

How to Paint Clouds With Acrylic, Oils, or Watercolors

Marion Boddy-Evans 

Clouds are classified by how high up in the atmosphere they occur. The long, sheet- or ribbon-like clouds found in rows at low altitudes are stratus clouds. Rows of small, cotton-wool clouds found at similar altitudes are called stratus cumulus. Large, billowing, cotton-wool clouds are cumulus clouds. These can extend to great altitudes; when the top flattens out in an anvil shape, it gets called a cumulonimbus cloud (nimbus is a term used to describe a dark, rain-bearing cloud). Cumulonimbus clouds are the ones that generate dramatic thunderstorms and hail. The wispy clouds found at very high altitudes are cirrus clouds; these are made from ice crystals.

How to Paint Stratus Clouds

You want long, horizontal sweeps across your painting, so use a flat, wide brush. The lines of the cloud should almost be parallel but paint them freehand, not using a ruler. If they're perfectly parallel, they'll look artificial. Remember that perspective applies to clouds too, so they become narrower (smaller) and paler the further away they are.

Suggested colors include a light and a dark blue, such as cerulean and ultramarine, for the sky; yellow ocher and Payne's gray for the 'dirty,' rain-loaded bits of the clouds.

How to Paint Cumulus Clouds

Think of the strong winds that whip up these clouds, and try to translate this action into brush strokes. Work fast and energetic not slow and painstakingly meticulous. Resist the temptation to make these clouds white with dark shadows. Clouds reflect colors and may include reds, mauves, yellows, grays. Concentrate on the shadows, which give the clouds shape.

Suggested colors include alizarin crimson for pink tints; yellow ochre and cadmium orange for golds; Payne's gray or burnt sienna mixed with one of the blues used in the sky, for shadows.

How to Paint Cirrus Clouds

These are feathery clouds very high up in the atmosphere, swept along by high winds. Be light-handed to capture their wispiness. If they're pure white, consider lifting off the blue of your sky to reveal a white ground rather than painting with an opaque white, trying to leave parts white, or using masking fluid.

Suggested colors include alizarin crimson for pink tints; yellow ocher and cadmium orange for golds.

Watercolor Clouds in Different Blue Paints

Paint Clouds in Watercolor
Clouds painted in watercolor using five different blues. From top to bottom: cobalt, Winsor, cerulean, Prussian and ultramarine.

 Greenhome, 2010

When painting clouds using watercolor, the white of the clouds will be the white of the paper. Don't stress about trying to paint around the shapes of the clouds, but create them by lifting off paint using something absorbent, such as a piece of paper towel or corner of a clean rag. If you find the paint dries before you've time to lift off the clouds, try first painting the area with some clean water, so when you apply the blue you're working wet on wet.

Start by selecting a blue, mixing up more than you think you'll need, and painting it across the whole area with a broad brush. Don't fuss overly about getting it a completely even wash as once you start lifting off paint to create the clouds, you'll have variations in the blue anyway.

The test sheet shown in the photo was painted by Greenhome, who says: "Before embarking on this [painting] journey, I thought a cloud is a cloud is a cloud. Not so anymore. I find myself scrutinizing clouds quite obsessively these days. I did this test sheet with five different kinds of blue (cobalt, Winsor, cerulean, Prussian and ultramarine) and two different cloud lifting tools (scrunched up toilet tissue and a small sea sponge).

As you can see, different blues give the sky quite a different feel. Select a blue that fits the scene and the location. The sky definitely isn't always the same blue.

Once you're comfortable with this painting technique, start adding more color into the cloud area for shadows within the clouds. Payne's grey is excellent for dark rain clouds, but experiment with adding a little dark red to the blue to create a purple-tinged shadow.