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Painting Watercolor Sky Techniques

Updated on August 5, 2016
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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Lakeside

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Techniques for painting some fabulous skies in watercolor

For any landscape the sky is critical. Unless you want a plain blue sky, the clouds and time of day make a big difference.The painting process is all about making the water your friend. Your paint must have the freedom to flow and be free to move if you are to achieve a spontaneous, loose look. My mantra has become, "fly, be free" because so many of my students are afraid of the water. Jump in. It won't hurt. So what if you create something that won't hang in the Louver, or even in your home. It's not about that. It's about the joy of painting. The freedom and happiness the combinations of color bring to you is far more important. Then if you end up with a masterpiece, or even a happy accident, it is an added bonus.

Sometimes the sky is just a background

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Wet on Wet splatters.
Wet on Wet splatters. | Source

Introduction to Watercolor Painting

Take risks.

Many of the pictures I do are planned to the last detail before I begin, but sometimes I like to just pour paint on the surface of the paper and see what it will do before I even know what I am going to paint. It is being spontaneous. This makes a number of "happy accidents" that I couldn't have by planning. That sort of uninhibited approach is something for you to work toward. To begin you may want more control than that. That's okay. We can explore several creative paths in this lens.


“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

— St. Francis of Assisi
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Remember that some of the best art in the world is art that leaves you asking questions. The artist has left something of a mystery in his style, in his composition, in his subject matter. If you stand back and ask yourself, "Who lives there" or "Where does that path go" or "What are they talking about" or "How does that blue take my breath away," that's great art because the viewer has become emotionally involved. When you paint, try to leave a little mystery, a little left unsaid, a line or two missing. This is why many experts say there is a point at which the painting has become "overworked." We artist's tend to be perfectionists, but in this one instance restrain yourself. You will love your work more for it.

Ultramarine blue

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Large brush holds more water

I like ultramarine blue for the sky. It is soft, light and has a slight purple tint to it. However any of the blues can be used for a sky. Try them all for yourself and choose your own favorite. Remember that the sky is not all one value of blue. There will be variation of intensity. Dark at the high noon and lighter blue as you get closer to the horizon. Study the sky at different times of the day and see how the intensity of color changes.

Use the largest brush when painting a large expanse of sky. The 1-inch flat holds a lot of water and spreads the paint thin, which is usually what you want for a sky. You can buy larger brushes, called mops, which do exactly that. It holds and spread large amounts of water for a large “wash” on a sky or any large area.

"I like to make an image that's so simple you can't avoid it, and so complicated you can't figure it out." Alex Katz

Avoid the "blossom"

I like to start by wetting the sky portion of my paper first to insure even coverage. Remember you don't want too much water; enough to make puddles causing the "blossom". If the paper is too dry you may get streaks in the sky. If this doesn't bother you, then fine. But I like a smooth, even blue in the heavens.You can mix a small cup of thinned blue for the sky to guarantee an even overall value. If you do this you will have to go back over the upper portion with more blue to give it more intensity.

"Fence Posts"

Notice the sky is painting all the way down to the tree line.  The blue mountains make the snow look white but it is really sky blue.
Notice the sky is painting all the way down to the tree line. The blue mountains make the snow look white but it is really sky blue. | Source

Clouds

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Paper towel blotting

While the blue sky is still wet, wad a paper towel and blot off the blue in places. You can create a line of white clouds or only a few floating in a deep blue sky. After blotting clouds, go back and paint a deeper value of the same or a different blue across the top of the paper around the clouds. Lift the paper slightly so the blue "runs" down to the clouds but stops at the edge (because the clouds are dry). Lay the paper flat again and blot any drips that ran into your clouds.

Clear Water Clouds - "Seagulls"

You can see here I was using a rather small brush because I have unfortunate streaks in the sky.
You can see here I was using a rather small brush because I have unfortunate streaks in the sky. | Source

Another method of making clouds without drawing them purposely is to flood the "clouds" with clear water after painting the sky. The water will push the blue out of the way and leave soft edges. This method is used in "Seagulls" painting. However, this method is much less controlled than the paper towel method and you end up with the "blossom," a ring of backwashed paint. Sometimes the blossom is desirable and sometimes it looks bad. This is one of those things that experience teaches best. Just for fun you will have to try this technique on something you don't mind "ruining."

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso

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Unsuccessful paintings

"Almond Blossoms"

To me a ruined painting is only an experiment on what not to do next time. I have many pictures that were not successes and I will never show anyone. They weren't failures exactly; they were learning experiences. Don't be afraid to have a few.

I consider "Blossom" to be one of those unsuccessful paintings. I wanted to paint a girl in the almond blossoming trees along the Blossom Trail (as spot locally known for lots of blooming fruit and nut trees). But the sky blue in between the branches looks like missing puzzle pieces and the blossoms are too busy. They take away from the focal point too much, which should be the girl.

Trees

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Where to stop the blue

When painting the sky near trees you must remember that some sky is usually visible between branches and leaves. With this in mind, some artists paint blue all the way down to the horizon, right over any trees. Other artists will stop the blue at the tree line and insert a little blue sky here or there into the tree for a peek-a-boo sky effect. Either method works as long as you are using a light value of blue over the trees. Remember that green is made with blue and yellow, so blue of the sky will make the tree-green a little bluer, if you have painted the sky under the trees. This is usually not a bad thing. The final call will be yours, of course. Watercolors are transparent and only some of the blue will be apparent in the trees.

If you wish to make the trees fall colors, you will NOT want to paint the blue sky over them first. The yellow and orange over the blue will be a grey-greenish… not fall colors.

"I skirmish and battle with the sun. And what sun here!... One would have to paint with gold and gems." Claude Monet

Sunsets

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Load your brush

Open your watercolors and drip one drop of water into each of the paint wells. Leave them for a few minutes to absorb the water and get soft and rich. Loading your brush with so much water it is at the point of dripping is a “full load.” This what you need for the wettest washes used for the sky. The paint is thin because there is so much water. Good for skies, large areas of fields and mountains, lakes, etc. Tip the paper slightly as you paint it on. Never go back over the place you have just painted or you will have streaks.

Notice on this painting there are "blossoms" in the purple clouds. This won't be a problem as I will be painting dark trees over these areas and no one will know they are there in the end.

The sky below.
The sky below. | Source

Palm sunset

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Sunset sky

With your large brush, paint just water over the whole piece of watercolor paper. Now using long horizontal strokes, start with purple or blue at the top and change colors every couple of inches. The sunset should be purple or blue, then red, orange and finally yellow at the bottom.

For fun you could paint reddish-purple clouds in the upper sky.

The thing about sunset, is that everything else goes dark. When the sun has set enough to color the sky, there isn't enough light to give clear details about anything else around you. So everything is in silhouette. After painting a sunset sky, all you have to do is paint outlines or silhouettes of the rest of the landscape.

Cloudy sky

"As a painter I shall never signify anything of importance. I feel it absolutely." Vincent van Gogh

Rainy day

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To paint a rainy day, you start the same as with any sky, by painting the paper with clear water. Then streak on the dark colors of indigo, ultramarine or prussian blue and violet. Tilt the paper so the colors run at an angle. If the paper has started to dry, you may need to spray with water to keep it running or uses a brush and clear water to keep the run smooth. Sometimes the paint will hit a "dry" spot and travel around it. That will ruin your rainy day look.

Rainy day Step 2

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Lay the paper flat again and wait for it to dry to add the hills and fields or details to the painting. In this example I got in a hurry and my hills bled into the sky a little.

“If it (painting) weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.”

— Edgar Degas

Yellow sky gives the illusion of brightness

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Don't be afraid of the unusual

Try something you have never seen before. In this painting the glow of the sun has made everything look yellow. Even the sky is completely yellow. The contrast of the purple with the yellow make this work. This isn't photo-realistic but it is a mood you are creating. Don't be afraid to experiment with color. The only one that never really looks great is green. There is even times when a brown sky sets a mood.

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Have any questions about painting skies? - Ask me.

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    • pennylu profile image

      Penny Lulich 7 weeks ago from Indiana

      I just wrote my first article on watercolor painting (I haven't published it yet). I love your article here. It's excellent, and I know I can learn from you. Thank you! How do I follow you?

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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      @John Dyhouse: I like to paint things cameras can't capture, future, past, things like that. Thanks for visiting my lens. And thanks for the kind comments about the girl in the blossoms.

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      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      I agree with the last commenter, you underestimate the the girl in the blossoms painting. Looks fine to me. I love painting skies and in fact sunsets/sunrise are my favourite subjects. I mainly paint landscapes and they give me ample opportunity for this aspect. My paintings are always about mood, I don't do realistic paintings anymore. I have my camera for that.

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      Denise McGill 4 years ago from Fresno CA

      @delia-delia: I'm working on a lens to "fix" watercolor paintings that you aren't exactly happy with. Keep watching. Thanks for liking my lens.

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      Delia 4 years ago

      What great lens and watercolor paintings! I think that girl painting is darling, as well as all the rest..I love painting in watercolor, but watercolor does not like me, it's so unforgiving...I paint over my losers with acrylic and if that doesn't work, out it goes. ;-)