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Painting Skies

Tips for painting skies that unify and add atmosphere to your watercolor paintings

With landscape based paintings, no matter what the main subject is, the problem of what to do with that empty bit at the top often seems to crop up. It should be considered in the planning stage of a painting, not as an annoying space to be dealt with towards the end.

The sky can have a big impact on, not just the balance of a painting, but the general atmosphere of the work you create. In this article we will explore different approaches to painting skies and their effect on the balance and atmosphere of the final result.

Watercolor painting built up with transparent glazes

The soft translucent haze in the sky of this painting was made by layering washes of Cobalt Blue, Permanent Rose and Aureolin, then adding a final graded wash of white Gouache.

Each coloured wash was allowed to dry before the next color was applied.

The colored washes were made darker at the top, lighter towards the horizon, then darkening down through the water.

Once the three colored washes were thoroughly dry the region around the distant hills was dampened to give a soft edge to the application of the hills. As the glazes were applied, white paper was preserved around some of the boats and buildings for the highlights.

Mixing white gouache

After all the detail was painted in and everything had dried, a gray wash was painted vertically down each side of the painting to concentrate attention in the focal area.

The final step was to mix a watery solution of white gouache and wash it down across the sky to the top of the mountains.

Painting a gouache wash over the sky in a watercolor painting

The bottom edge of this gouache wash was feathered out with a clean damp brush to make it invisible.

As the gouache wash dried out, the result was a beautiful pearly gray. 

Watercolor landscape with hills trees and stream

There is often a tendency to paint the sky just as it appears. This sometimes works but, more often than not, treating the sky as part of the overall plan of the painting will produce a better result. 

I ignored the blue/gray, cloudy sky in this landscape and replaced it with a color more harmonious with the rest of the painting. This gave the river and trees more impact and reinforced the hot, dry atmosphere of the rolling hills.

Watercolor painting of terrace houses

The sky in this painting was also painted in tight harmony with the rest of the painting. This dominant warm color causes more attention to go to the cool darks of the focal area.

Watercolor painting old iron gate and broken chicken wire fence

Sometimes the clarity and impact of a clear, blue sky just can't be ignored. Contrasting the warmth and detail of the foreground with a simple flat sky really gives impact to the foreground. This sky was first washed in with a flat wash of Cobalt blue. When the painting was almost finished the sky was dampened with a wet brush down over the edge of the trees and bushes. Into this area of dampness a mixture of White Gouache and Ultramarine Gouache was worked through the sky and allowed to feather out towards the trees and building.

Watercolor Painting of pine trees reflected in lake

A pale warm under wash of Quinacridone Gold and Permanent Rose was put down before the sky and details were applied to this painting.

The underwash was allowed to dry thoroughly then the area of the sky and water was given a coat of clean water.

Painting the sky was as simple as mixing some Ultramarine, Alizarin and a small amount of Quinacridone Gold to achieve a cool gray. This was then dropped onto the wet paper, leaving a patch of light around the focal area. A dry Hake brush was used to smooth and manipulate the gray slightly, then it was left to dry.

Watercolor Painting of road leading up to a small rural village

This dramatic sky was added towards the end of the painting with a wash of Indigo, softened along the bottom edge with a damp brush.

While the Indigo was still wet some white gouache was worked in above the focal area and dragged vertically with a dry Hake brush.

After each upward stroke of the Hake brush it was rubbed on a towel to remove any trace of gouache before the next stroke was made.

To tie the sky and foreground, a  wash of Indigo was graded up from the bottom of the painting. A splash of brown, tinted with white gouache, was used to add some interest over the Indigo wash.

Placing a patch of light above the focal area like this helps direct the eye back to the focal area.

Fisherman's Cottage on the West Australian Coast

For this sky I mixed Ultramarine with a little Alizarin and Quinacridone Gold. It was applied heavy and dark then lifted out towards the right hand side with a dry Hake brush. While the sky was still wet White Gouache was dropped into the top right and carefully feathered with a dry Hake brush, again, drying the brush between strokes to avoid gouache being dragged into the dark area. Dragging the gouache down towards the focal area guides the eye back to that area of the painting.

Small details added with Ultramarine Gouache put life into the dark shadows of the building.


Skies don't have to be dramatic - sometimes the opposite approach works better. In this painting the sky and much of the foreground were simply left as white paper. 

The oscillating warms and cools of the subject and the contrasting darks have more power simply surrounded by white paper. 

Painting Clouds

Clouds are affected by light and perspective just like any other large three dimensional object. In a sky filled with large cumulus clouds you will see a reduction in the size of the clouds as they recede and the tonal contrast will reduce as the clouds disappear into the distance. Depending on the time of day, light will hit part of the cloud casting the opposite side into shadow. If the sun is shining clouds will cast shadows on the ground. All these features and effects can be used and exaggerated to add drama to your paintings.


This photograph shows the effect of perspective and light on clouds


This exercise was painted with very wet washes of Cobalt, Ultramarine and Phthalo Blue, plus Alizarin and Quinacridone Gold. Once the washes were applied they were manipulated with crumbled absorbent paper then left to dry.

Watercolor painting of cloud showing edge variation

This example shows the edge variation and effect of light - hard edged white paper on top and soft shadow below.

Painting clouds requires a combination of hard and soft edges. Generally, where light strikes a cloud surrounded by dark sky, a sharp clean edge will result. This sharp area of white should be kept dry. The rest of the sky can be painted with wet flowing washes, softening and feathering the edges where the light area turns to shadow.

Watercolor experiments - painting clouds

Painting clouds requires practice and experimentation. Masking a sheet of paper into small squares gives you the opportunity to play around with different color combinations, edge treatments, washes, lifting and blotting techniques. All this builds up confidence and quickly teaches you what works and what doesn't.

Tips for Painting Skies


• Work quickly and simply with a large brush and plenty of water. Let the water do the work. It will carry the pigment around causing beautiful soft edges and washes of color that cant be created by consciously trying to manipulate the paint.

• Don't be tempted to fiddle. Put it on quickly then leave it to dry. If unwanted blooms start to emerge, a dry Hake brush gently feathered over the mark will usually take care of it


• It is more important to relate the color of the sky to the painting rather than trying to imitate natural color.


• The sky should always be considered as part of the design of the painting. Use the shape of clouds, shafts of light, patches of rain etc. to to direct attention to the focal area.


• Keep in mind that skies are generally cool at the top and become warmer towards the horizon.



Next time you are painting a sky, consider the various options available. Often the best solution is not what appears in front of you, but something that relates better to the painting or the idea you are pursuing.  

Author: John Lovett

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