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.

Watercolor Painting en Plein air

We diagrammed a pastel artwork in another post about painting clouds at sunset and explained a bit about the types of clouds one may encounter when painting outdoors. But what should you do when painting clouds in watercolor?

Watercolor artists 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.

How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

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, which you can see in the orange and blue wash in my painting, Ghost Ranch IV, below.

How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

Ghost Ranch IV by John Hulsey, watercolor.

Understanding the Anatomy of Clouds

In Ghost Ranch IV, I wanted to recreate the effect from when I witnessed a storm “pop up” on a clear day and move 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. And because this painting was so satisfying to make, below I have dissected the creation process of Ghost Ranch IV, for you to enjoy and learn from. Happy painting!

How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

Click the image to expand

–John & Ann

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