Watercolorists have a lot of tricks up their sleeves for painting skies. In this post we will explore two of them, lifting out, and wet in wet. Remember, no trick is a replacement for real observation in nature. These methods become very powerful when coupled with genuine study of the sky. Click on any illustration to enlarge it.
Lifting Out Clouds
Some types of paint, such as Phthalo Blue, stain the fibers of the paper. Once they are down on the paper, they are there to stay. Other colors, such as Manganese Blue Hue, sit on the surface as little granules and can be rewetted and lifted off the page. Depending on the staining characteristics of the particular pigment of blue that you use, you may be able to add clouds into a blue sky.
Here I painted the sky with a graded wash of Manganese Blue Hue. I moved quickly and the paper was still wet when I reached the bottom of the page. crumpled up a paper towel and soaked up some of the paint with gentle taps. Some blue remained behind so I rewetted this area with my brush, let it soak in a little and lifted it out with a clean part of the crumpled towel. Once the paint was dry I added shadows on the bottom of the clouds.
Wet in Wet Skies
The wet in wet technique is one of the best tools in the watercolorist toolbox. It is so good that many people get caught up in the beauty of the technique and stop really observing the sky before them. Remember to come back to nature for the best lessons on skyscapes.
To begin, wet the surface of the paper that will hold your sky. Some people like to leave a few little dry spots to add unexpected sharp edges here and there in the clouds. You do not want a puddle of water on your page. What you are going for is a damp sheen across the surface when you hold the paper to the light. No running drips. If your paper is very absorbent, you may need to brush on a second coat of water.
In the field, I use a Kuretake water brush. You can temporarily remove the plastic piece that holds the bristles as a flat and presto, the brush expands to a big mop brush, great for wetting a larger surface.
Now the fun begins. Mix a puddle of dark blue and apply it with irregular strokes, working around the edges of the white parts of your clouds. The wet paper will soften the edges of the strokes creating a beautiful cloud-like margin. As you work your way down the paper, use a lighter shade of blue and finally a warmer cyan. Add more horizontal elements, blue sky holes, closer to the horizon. If you start at the top and work your way down, the paper toward the bottom will be a little dryer than the top and the paint will not run as much. This is good. Distant clouds are not as softly feathered as nearby clouds.
If the page is mostly dry, you can re-wet the white cloud surfaces with a clean brush and water. Add shadows (here I used Daniel Smith Shadow Violet) and warm blushes to the clouds (DS Quinacridone Gold). Clouds that are closer to the top of the page have more of their surface covered with shadow because you see more of the underside. If an edge of the shadow zone looks too sharp you can soften it with a stroke of a damp clean brush while the paint area is still wet. Some artists paint with two brushes in their hands, one with paint and the other charged with water for softening edges.
Enjoy observing skies. Learning how to paint skies with watercolor reawakens the childhood joy of watching clouds.