“Painting Dramatic Skies and Clouds in Oils”

by John Stillman RSMA

I think every artist is fascinated by the sky, I know i have ever since I can remember, and to this day I am constantly inspired by the shapes, colours and vastness of our wonderful skies and clouds. Whether you are an abstract painter or a more traditional painter, it has always been there to offer inspiration and to challenge you in whatever your choice of medium you choose to work in.

As a landscape painter the sky really does determine the whole mood and atmosphere of the scene, and so it is important to get the main elements right when attempting to paint a convincing sky.

The best thing I ever did was to get outside with my paintbox and paint directly from life. And it was the sky and clouds that I concentrated on, as I knew that if I could paint a credible sky with the right tonal values, then I would be on my way to achieve a more finished landscape painting.

It is always a scary prospect to paint in front of the subject and to deal with curious onlookers, but my advice to you is, if you do feel to intimidated by this, then set your easel/paintbox up in your garden or from a window of your home and paint a sky from there without any interruptions, and in time your confidence will grow.

If on the other hand time is against you, then try to carry a small sketch book with you, and make quick colour notes and sketch’s to use at a later date. Whatever your preferred method of recording the sky you can never have enough reference, it really is your biggest asset.

I would also recommend that you look at other artist’s work that you admire, it goes without saying that the works of Constable and Turner are so important when considering painting dramatic skies. They truly were masters of their craft and you can learn so much from viewing their wonderful paintings.

I have for many years admired the work of Sir John Alfred Arnesby Brown R.A (1866-1955), and for me he to is a master of painting atmospheric skies. As a painter from Suffolk he was widely known for his paintings of cattle in the landscape, but his skies are truly wonderful and very inspiring. One other artist that I simply must mention, and goes without saying when painting dramatic skies is the famous Norfolk painter Edward Seago (1910-1974). There are many illustrated books available of Seago’s work and I would highly recommend them for you to view his paintings, as his style and technique made his skies look so effortless.

Another useful exercise is to paint the sky every morning for an hour from 7am till 8 for a week. Pick a small panel to paint onto like a 6×8 or 7×10 as you will be able to cover this quickly, and believe me when you line your paintings up at the end of the week I am sure you will be surprised with the results. The small paintings that you produce will become invaluable reference, and in time if you continue with this exercise on a weekly basis then you will amass quiet a collection of panels that you can use to refer to when working on future paintings.

When painting your sky simplify the cloud shapes along with the tonal values. The clouds themselves need as much consideration in composition as the landscape itself, and in time you will know what to keep in, and what to leave out so that the sky looks balanced, it is all about getting a harmony not only in the sky but the landscape itself. By half closing your eyes it will make it easier for you to ‘block in’ the shapes of the clouds. By doing this, the clouds will look more convincing and not ‘overworked’. Choose a large brush when ‘blocking in’ the main shapes, as this not only covers the panel quickly, but also keeps your brush work looking lively, and it will all add to the feeling of the sky, and give the impression that the clouds are light and airy within the landscape. It is also good practice to have a small part of the landscape in your painting, as this will help in judging the scale of the sky, and it will also add distance to your painting.

Do try to remember to add a touch of the colour from the sky to the landscape itself as this will help in linking the two elements together. One other important tip would be, try not to be stingy with the amount of paint you use, because as your confidence grows there is nothing better than ‘sculpting’ oil paint with your brush to create the clouds. I also use my fore finger to soften the edges of the clouds if needed, and unlike a brush it does not wear out!

I guess the major difficulty I, and I am sure many other painters have come up against is that the landscape is constantly changing, and the need to work fast becomes very evident early on when tackling a sky. That is why I would advise you to work on a small scale as you can cover the panel or canvas quickly and therefore in time be able to hold the image of the sky and clouds you are painting in your visual memory. The more skies you paint the more experienced you will become of knowing exactly the colour mixes, but generally the base colour of clouds is always grey, and then in time you will be able to determine what kind of grey. I tend to keep my colour mixes on the ‘warm’ side as opposed to being to cold, as clouds generally are very warm in tone.

I would also recommend reading this book ‘ The Cloudspotter’s Guide” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is a good read, and it certainly opened my eyes to all the various cloud formations. Like all painting you need to know your subject, so the more information you have to hand the better.

I do hope that the following text and photos of a selection of my paintings will inspire you to take up the challenge of painting your own dramatic skies and clouds.

‘Afternoon Light, Tower Bridge’ oil on board 9×12

Tower Bridge is always a pleasure to paint, whatever the weather but on this particular day the sky was centre of attention for me.

The board I was using to paint on was prepared using Gesso Primer (Windsor & Newton) and had a light covering of Texture Paste (Daler Rowney) to give the board some texture to enable the paint to be drawn from the brush. I started with a very ‘turpsy’ wash of Cerulean Blue, Alizarin Crimson also adding some Gel Medium (Daler Rowney) to advance the drying time of the paint.

I then mixed a warm pink using Titanium White, Cadminum Red plus a touch of Lemon Yellow Hue to give the sky the warmth.

While this was wet I then used a clean cloth wrapped around my finger to ‘wipe out’ the highlights of the clouds and the intended buildings. Using some cloth to ‘wipe out’ is a great way of indicating the direction of the light straight away but this technique can only best be achieved when applying the initial ‘turpsy’ wash. For the more detailed highlights I use the wooden end of a brush and scratched away to reveal the white of the board. Where I had used the cloth to ‘wipe out’ the highlights I then mixed some Titanium White and Lemon Yellow Hue to accentuate the highlighted areas of the clouds. Again use your finger to blend the highlights into the wet background

Once I had the light source indicated it was time to start blocking in the buildings with a paint mixture of Burnt Sienna, Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine. The boats were indicated with simple brush marks while working on-site and any details where completed back at the studio.

My ‘on site’ work is all about getting the feel of the scene and the day and not about trying to complete a finished painting on site. I always like to complete my paintings back at the studio as it gives me time to consider any changes that need to be made to improve the painting. For me I like to do any changes a day or so after as I feel it is good to look at the painting with a fresh perspective.

‘Heading to the Races, Epsom Downs’ oil on board 10×14

Epsom Downs is great for its big skies and on this day it was not to disappoint. I only live a short drive from Epsom and I have spent many hours painting on the Downs.

It was a hot and humid afternoon and not very comfortable painting conditions. I started by mixing some Titanium White, Cerulean Blue to establish a base colour for the sky. Then I mixed some Burnt Sienna, French Ultramarine, Titanium White plus a touch of Alizarin Crimson and proceeded to paint the stormy band of cloud in. Using my finger I blended the colours together to create the soft edges of the clouds. Then with a clean cotton cloth I wiped away the paint to reveal the top highlights of the clouds.

By mixing some Cerulean Blue, Lemon Yellow Hue I painted the sky into the cloud from the top of the painting down to help indicate the shape of the cloud. A mix of Alizarin Crimson and Titanium White were then added to the top of the sky and blended into the darker band below to give more shape and warmth to the cloud. I then painted the horizon in using the same colour mix as the dark band of cloud, instantley it gave the painting depth.

The painting is very simple in composition: foreground, middle and the sky. Again as previous paintings the grandstand, people and additional highlights were all finished back at the studio but the main objective of the day was to capture the humid afternoon of that appressive sky. By the time I was packing up the scene had completely changed and was dull and overcast. I was pleased with the whole effect of the finished painting.

‘The Millennium Bridge, London’ oil on board 8×10

I am very proud to be a member of ‘The Wapping Group of Artists’ and this picture was painted on one of our Wednesday meetings along the Thames.

I painted this using my 8×10 ‘pochade box’ and as the lid of the box allows me to carry three 8×10 panels I always have a selection of pre-prepared coloured panels to choose from. It is good to have a selection of panels with you as it does save sometime when applying a base colour. One other important aid I carry with me is a viewfinder called a ‘ViewCatcher’ to help me select and frame my subject. It will save you time in selecting your subject and open your eyes to allsorts of potential paintings!. You can buy one from your local art shop or online through various art related websites.

On this occasion the base colour of the panel was the background blue you can see in the sky which was a mix of Cobalt Blue and Titanium White. I then mixed a ‘warm grey’ to indicate the darker clouds. I used my finger to soften the edges of the clouds making sure I cleaned the paint from my finger with a clean piece of cloth so that the blending did not transfer any unnecessary paint to the painting. It is good practice to do this when a base colour is already applied to the board as you can control the soft and sharp edges of the clouds against the background colour.

In applying paint like this on a dry base colour it allows you to achieve a ‘broken brush’ stroke effect to the edges of the clouds and lets the base colour show through which all adds to the shape and depth of the clouds. I then took a no.4 Rigger to add the highlights of the clouds and the light effect on the water. Try not to get to carried away when using a Rigger to apply your highlights as you do not want to overwork the highlighted areas, keep it simple!

Again I used my finger to soften some of the highlights so the clouds did not look to ‘hard edged’. Its good to have a balance of soft and hard edges when painting clouds as the more you do this the more experienced you will become of knowing when to leave certain areas alone. Its just a matter of practising and finding out what works for you.

The next stage of the painting was to indicate the bridges and foreshore. As the sky was still wet I simply indicated the main pillar of the Millennium Bridge and made two marks either side of the painting as to the height of the walk way across the Thames.

To draw the straight lines of the bridges I used the edge of a 8×10 panel to draw a straight line with a no.4 Rigger brush to indicate the distant bridge and the wooden breakers in the foreground.

The boat, figures and any additional highlights were all added back at the studio the next day.

‘Moored Boats on the Hamble’ oil on board 9×12

The river Hamble is a wonderful place to paint, lots of good subject. On this particular day I was invited to join friends on their boat for a trip to Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I had taken a ‘pochade box’ with me as it was lightweight and compact and I had about an hour before we set sail so I sat on the boat and started to paint.

I had with me a selection of toned boards to speed the process up of getting the sky in place. When taking on cloud formations like this you must work fast and not dither as time is of the essence. Once you have worked and experimented on your technique of painting skies and clouds you will become faster in getting the paint down onto your board or canvas and develop your own way of capturing the scene.

The clouds were moving very slowly that day which is always a help as it gives you abit more time to observe the shapes and tones. Try to learn to hold the image of the clouds in your mind as they will be constantly changing and so working fast is important.

I mixed some Burnt Sienna, Colbalt Blue and Titanium White and painted in the ‘warm greys’ of the clouds and then I added some darker areas underneath the clouds by introducing a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. You can always lighten these areas so do not be afraid to over darken. By doing this it allows you to create ‘counterchange’ within the sky ‘light against dark’ which will make the clouds appear layered and therefore give the sky a feeling of recession and distance.

I used a no.8 round brush to ‘block in’ the main shapes, then I mixed some Lemon Yellow Hue and a touch of Titanium White and added the highlights to the clouds.

As soon as you do this the clouds will come to life and by working in front of the subject you will find your skies and clouds will be more convincing as opposed to working from photographs. There is nothing wrong in using photos as the more reference material you have to work from the better but from my experience the best skies I have ever painted have always been on-site and in front of the subject. I found working from photographs made my skies and clouds look overworked and to ‘finished’. It really was a lesson learn’t when I went out and painted from life, the skies just looked more convincing to the eye.

The beauty of oil paint is that you can sculpt the paint by twisting and turning the brush with thick paint and the highlights of clouds benefit from this as it adds a 3-dimensional feel to the clouds.

The rest of the painting including the background trees, buildings, boats etc… were all indicated on-site and finished off back at the studio.

‘Evening Light, Tower Bridge’ oil on board 7×10

This is a good example of how a sky can still be dramatic but without clouds. The whole feel of this painting is set by the warmth and colour of the sky. The cool colours of the foreground compliment the yellows and oranges of the evening sky. Keeping a sky simple with just a gradient of colour can still add atmosphere to your paintings.

‘Evening on the Solent’ oil on board 6×8

I started by mixing a warm base colour using Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow and Burnt Sienna with some Gel Medium mixed in to advance the drying time. I then mixed some Cobalt blue, Alizarin Crimson into the top left of the sky, keeping the paint mix very wet to allow it to all blend together. Then I added a wash of Lemon Yellow Hue and a touch of Cerulean Blue into the top right of the painting, you can see the two base colours at the top of the painting aswell as the tone of the board showing through. By using a cloth to ‘wipe out’ the wet paint I could create the shafts of light coming down from between the clouds.

Where the sun was shinning through the clouds I kept the areas dark in tone as I knew as soon as I applied the highlights to this area the ‘counterchange’ of the dark cloud against the sunlight behind would give me the effect I was looking for. Then a thick mix of Lemon Yellow Hue and Titanium White was then used to define the sunlight behind the clouds. I then added some Cadmium Orange to the paint mix and indicated the distant orange clouds aswell as painting the orange horizon in.

When initially painting this I always thought it would only be a study for the sky and to be used at a later date for a future painting. I never set out for it to be the finished painting! The tanker and factory were all painted in back at the studio.

By painting the tanker in the foreground within the shadowed area made this a good example of ‘counterchange’ with the dark tanker against the light of the horizon. With the tanker and the factory added the scene had distance to it. By having both these elements in the picture it also gave a sense of scale to the size of the sky. 


I have always used artist’s quality oil paint by Windsor & Newton. I also use a Gel Medium made by Daler Rowney, this is used to ‘quicken’ the drying time when I am ‘blocking in’ at the start of a painting.

The brushes I use are Hog Hair and are a mixture of Pro Art and Windsor & Newton in sizes 12 Flat/Round, 10 Flat/Round, 8 Round, 5 Flat/Round, 2 Round, 4 and 6 Riggers plus I also use two synthetic brushes by Cass Art in sizes 4 and 6. And a good supply of cotton cloth!

For easels and paintboxes I have a ‘Soltek’ Pro Box Easel and an ‘Open Box M’ 11×14 paintbox, this is attached to a camera tripod with a quick release attachment added to the base of the paintbox. I have two pochade boxes in the following sizes 6×8, 10×8. To carry my wet paintings I have two boxes that have dividers in them to store my wet paintings and these are 10×8, 10×14.

Its taken me sometime to get comfortable with the right painting equipment, but I can finally say I am happy with the set-up’s that I use now. It is important to be comfortable with the equipment you choose as it all adds to your finished results.