How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

1 Jun 2011

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.

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