Anatomy of the Landscape: Clouds

The sky can be the crowning glory of a landscape painting, with a well-done version enhancing the harmony of the overall piece and a less accurately rendered version detracting from the focus of the elements beneath. Within that sky, there is the possibility for any arrangement of cloud shapes and styles, from high and billowy to low and wispy, and knowing and understanding cloud formations before painting them on-site can help in depicting them more accurately. Although there are patterns of clouds that do not necessarily fit into a particular category, following are the seven most commonly encountered cloud formations in nature.


These are probably the most commonly seen clouds, and they are usually present on fair, clear, sunny days. They resemble huge masses of puffy wool and float through the sky at various heights, with the side of the cloud that is facing the sun usually being very bright and the side that is farther from the sun usually appearing dark with bright edges. The undersides of these clouds are usually flat, while the puffy parts appear mainly on the top and sides of the formation.

Wispy and high in the sky, these clouds are actually made up of ice crystals formed from the freezing of supercooled water droplets and are usually present on a clear day. Cirrus clouds are sometimes referred to as “feather” clouds or “mare’s-tails” and point in the direction of air movement at their elevation, which is usually about five to six miles high.

These clouds can almost be described as a spreadsheet of layered fog that hangs low to the horizon on gray days, usually during the winter. They are often layered and sometimes have horizontal bands of shapes that indicate a possibility of rain. Artists often find these clouds the easiest to paint for their simple shape and pattern.

Nimbus clouds are precipitation clouds that are thick in texture and dark in color while being almost umbrellalike in shape. Their darkness reflects the amount of water they are carrying, and that precipitation may reach the earth as either rain, snow, or hail. Small, ragged pieces of these clouds floating at a lower level are often referred to as “scud.”

Cumulonimbus clouds are also known as thunder or shower clouds and usually appear on warm, summer afternoons prior to a storm. These clouds can look like cumulus clouds for their rounded, puffy shape but have an almost cirruslike appearance at the top and more of a nimbus-cloud look at the bottom. Cumulonimbus clouds can float very low to the landscape and often build up high.

Sometimes referred to as “sheep” formations, altocumulus clouds are large, soft, white groups often spread into lines, at heights that vary from three to four miles. They usually appear on clear, hazy days and also at sunrise and sunset. Artists sometimes find this type of cloud hardest to paint, as the formations are usually spread across the sky in a zigzag pattern.



As their name suggests, stratocumulus clouds are an accumulation of stratus clouds and cumulus clouds with a dark, twisted appearance. The clouds themselves appear low and lumpy and are not very thick. They vary in color from dark gray to light gray and can sometimes have breaks of clear sky in between them, even though they are often carrying rain.

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Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference ( which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

5 thoughts on “Anatomy of the Landscape: Clouds

  1. Nice summery of the different types of clouds.
    By the way, cirrus clouds are often forerunners of rain. cumulonimbus clouds usually contain updrafts and downdrafts within them and lightening to add to the mix. They reach high into the atomsphere. I also think that these are the type of cloud that spawns tornados. On the good side, the lightning frees nitrogen which falls to earth to enrich the soil and fertilize the plant life.

  2. Clouds are not all created equal, just like not every sunset or
    skyscape is the same. They all have their own unique look and feel,
    even though we can see them all the time. And it is the plein air
    artist's goal, passion, purpose to eek out that unique