How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

In John's plein air watercolor painting, Sunset, Isle of Palms, he over-saturated the
paper to get the effects he wanted before the paint and surface dried.

In a recent post on how to paint clouds at sunset, we diagrammed a pastel painting and explained a bit about the types of clouds one may encounter when painting outdoors. This time, we have dissected a watercolor, Ghost Ranch IV, that I painted in New Mexico near Georgia O’Keefe’s house. Watercolor painters 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 when 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 am trying for. It’s frustrating, and may be the reason there don’t seem to be as many plein air watercolor painters out there.

Plein air watercolor painting by John Hulsey, Golden Moment.
Golden Moment by John Hulsey, watercolor.

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. 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, as you can see in the orange and blue wash in the painting below.

In Ghost Ranch IV, I wanted to recreate the effect that I was witnessing a storm “popping up” on a clear day and moving 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 the wind really 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. Happy painting!

–John & Ann

If you are interested in honing your plein air watercolor skills, join us this fall in our plein air watercolor workshop in the Rocky Mountains.  For more information, visit The Artist’s Road.

Click on painting to enlarge.

Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.