How do I paint clouds?

That’s a question we’ve gotten from our art community over and over in the last few weeks.

In this post I will cover some basic art principles that will help you paint any clouds you see. Wilson Hurley was one of the great masters of painting clouds so I used several images of his artwork.

First I will share some reference photos of cloud types you might want to paint. Feel free to use these photos in any way you like. A lot of my best photos were taken while driving (from the passenger seat).

Second I will talk about light and shadow and how that influences the painting of clouds.

Third I will discuss values and colors and the fun we can have with clouds.

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Cloud References to Use for Painting

Sunset at Lowes

There are a lot of cloud types. And, while it may be helpful to know the scientific differences between them, that is a lot more information than what is needed for this post.

So, here are some photos you can use to practice applying the principles you learn about painting clouds.
Afternoon Clouds at Minnetrista with Rock Wall

BrokBroken Clouds with Backlighting Early Morning

Clouds Backlit

Clouds Sidelit

farm in fall

late afternoon clouds

sunset clouds

sunset

colorado sunset

river sunset

purple sky

Light and Shadow on Clouds

There is no difference between painting clouds or any other shape or object. The main question to ask yourself is “where is my light source?”

Wilson Hurley painting

Thunderstorm Building on the San Dias – oil painting by Wison Hurley

Once you know which direction the light is coming from you can create all kinds of dramatic cloud shapes. The important thing is to keep that light source direction consistent throughout your painting. That goes for trees, clouds, buildings – whatever is in the painting.

Remember, clouds are simply shapes. If you want the cloud to feel like it has 3-dimensional mass make sure it has a light side and a shadow side.

Examine closely Wilson Hurley’s painting Thunderstorm Building on the San Dias. If you look at the right-side cliffs and the clouds just above them you will see that they are very similar in structure.

detail of Hurely paining

Detail of Thunderstorm Building on the San Dias

The only significant difference between the solid rocky cliffs and the fluffy atmospheric clouds is value. Even many of the colors are similar.

The reason clouds are lighter in value is because they are masses of water molecules. Those masses allow light to filter through as well as light to bounce around and reflect off the water droplets.

Even though there is a lot more light bouncing around in the clouds there is still a light and shadow relationship. That relationship is what creates form.

The reason we can lay on the grass and see dragons, frogs, bunnies, or any other object in the clouds is because there is a light side and a shadow side. It is the same principle of light and shadow we use to create paintings of actual dragons, frogs or bunnies.

morning clouds Hurley painting


Morning Clouds – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

Can you see how Wilson shaped and formed the clouds using highlight, halftone, and shadow the same way he did for the rocks and trees?

He also kept his light source direction consistent throughout his painting.

Morning Clouds – the red squares show the similarity between the rock’s light and shadow pattern and the clouds light and shadow pattern.

The rock formations in the foreground look very similar to the cloud forms above – just a lot darker in value.

The important thing is to first figure out which direction the light is coming from. Is it in front of the clouds, to the side, below, above, or behind (silhouette)?

blazing sunset Hurley

Blazing Sunset – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

You can see in Hurley’s Blazing Sunset that the light source is below and to the left side. How do we know that? Because the purple shadows are to the right and at the top of the clouds.

The light source may seem obvious in blazing Sunset. It’s crazy though, how often we get carried away having fun with cloud shapes and forget about keeping the light and shadow consistent.

Here are a few more examples of Wilson Hurley’s masterful use of light and shadow to create dramatic cloud shapes. Watch how consistent the light and shadow patterns are in both the clouds and the foreground hills, trees, and grasses.

clouds light source

Elena Gallegos Park – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

Based on the shadows in the hills and clouds, the light source is to the left and slightly in front of and above the middle of the clouds.

oaklahoma sky painting

Oklahoma Sky – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

The light source is low and behind the large vertical clouds which creates a silhouette effect. It is below the horizontal clouds in the distance. Notice how the clouds block almost all the light from the foreground placing our attention fully on the drama in the sky.

Hurley sundown painting

Sundown on Las Lomas de la Bolsa – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

The light source is about level with the middle of the hills and to the right. Wilson used that angle to great advantage with the cloud in shadow on the far left side.

slightly lit clouds

Arroyo del Oso – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

The light is just slightly at a right angle. He designed it with enough front light to create a large area of yellow clouds. The slight angle allowed him to place some clouds in shadow for more drama and contrast.

light contrast in clouds Hurley painting

La Bolsa de Juana Lopez – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

Bringing the light in from high up and just slightly to the right side was inspired. The contrasts of light and dark create a stunning presence in the mountain and hovering cloud.

Distant thunder clouds

Distant Thunder – oil painting by Wilson Hurley

The lower front-lighting used in Distant Thunder made for some fantastic shapes in the clouds. You can see how many small nuances and shifts are possible when you use light and shadow to full effect.

Values and Colors in Painting Clouds

When we get the values correctly established in our clouds, we can use about any colors our imaginations can dream up – and they will be believable.

colorful clouds

Cloud Burst 24×30 – oil painting by Bill Inman

In Cloud Burst, I used hundreds of different warm and cool colors. I spent a lot of time experimenting and playing with color.

Color was the driving force in this painting. I wanted to create a kaleidoscope of shifting colors that dazzled the viewer. By keeping the values close to one another I could place warm and cool colors next to each other throughout the clouds.

My primary concern was to keep the darkest value in the clouds lighter than the darkest value in the foreground.

Cloud Burst in black and white to show the value structure

There is no value in the clouds as dark as the shadow value in the lower right trees.

Except in the case of total darkness, the shadow values in clouds will almost always be lighter than the shadow values on the ground. That goes back to earlier when we talked about light bouncing and reflecting around within the cloud masses.

Even though I played so much with color, I still kept the direction of light consistent.

Bill Inman cloud

On the Way Home 16×20 – oil painting by Bill Inman

On the Way Home was a similar experiment in color and brush texture. Notice that the darkest shadow in the cloud is still lighter than the darkest value in the foreground.

Conclusion

Think of cloud forms the same way you do with any other object and you will successfully paint clouds.

When we keep the direction of our light source consistent and focus on correct value relationships we have a lot of freedom to play with color and create dramatic cloud shapes.

I hope this inspires you to get out your paints and try your hand at painting clouds.

What do you find most challenging when painting clouds?