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Painting Clouds, Part I: Sunset Clouds

25 Apr 2011

John Hulsey's plein air painting, Dawn Harvest
How to paint clouds is a matter of first identifying the kind
of clouds you see. All works by John Hulsey.
Living as we do in the center of the country where the dominant feature of the landscape is the sky, we have always enjoyed painting the rich variety of clouds here. Besides being beautiful to look at, clouds can tell us all sorts of things about the weather, both present and future, that can prove very helpful when plein air painting out in the middle of a vast open space, like the prairie. 

We find that the worst weather—often just before a severe thunderstorm or just after—produces the best cloud subjects for outdoor painting, so we have learned to “read” these storms in order to paint them safely. But no matter what kind of clouds you see on the horizon, learning how to paint clouds believably is really a matter of becoming familiar with their structural forms. There are four common types of clouds:

Cumulus (heap) - fluffy, low-level, fair-weather clouds

Cirrus (curl of hair) - high, flat, ice crystals

Stratus (layer) - flat, mid-level clouds

Nimbus (rain) - very low-level rain clouds. 

John Hulsey's plein air painting, Cloud Light.
Clouds can reflect and refract light to such an extent that it
seems to fill up the sky.
After the Deluge is an example of a sunset-colored thunderstorm that I was able to paint from a safe vantage point. It features a large, vertically-developed Cumulonimbus (a tongue-twister for sure, but simply means a combination of Cumulus and Nimbus cloud formations) clouds flanked by some ragged Stratus and low Nimbus rain clouds.

Cumulonimbus clouds can form as one large towering cylinder in the classic anvil-topped shape with a broad, flat-bottomed base, sometimes becoming large and powerful enough to be termed a Super Cell, which can spawn tornadoes. Typically, they form as a series of round-topped cylinders that seem to march along in single file. Or, as in this plein air painting, they may be a combination of both.

Paint them as you would a rounded cylindrical form, warmest toward the sun and then use color temperature changes to model the form as it curves away. Save value changes for the shadow areas, and you will create a softly-rounded form. And remember, clouds absorb and reflect light. They can be opaque or translucent at times and they reflect a lot of light from themselves onto other clouds and even the ground. Low clouds also pick up colors from the ground or a large body of water at times, so keep an eye out for that effect, too. We have diagrammed After the Deluge, below, to give you some pointers on painting these types of clouds at sunset. 

We hope you’ll visit us at The Artist’s Road to see more painting tutorials on how to paint clouds and many other subjects. See you there!

--John & Ann



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on 12 Jun 2012 9:28 PM

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