James Toogood: How to Paint Clouds in Watercolor

Elbow Beach by James Toogood

The cloud in “Elbow Beach” (watercolor, 10×14) by James Toogood shows the watercolor technique of lifting watercolor.

The watercolor terms ease of lift and nonstaining describe related qualities of watercolor paint pigments. They’re good terms to understand when learning how to paint clouds in watercolor. Nonstaining paint pigments come up from the surface of a painting easily with soft scrubbing. In other words, nonstaining paint pigments have an ease-of-lift quality. Staining paints may be hard or impossible to lift.

Lifting was one of several watercolor techniques I used to soften the edges of the cloud in my painting Elbow Beach (at top). So the first step when painting clouds using this watercolor technique is to choose colors with nonstaining or ease-of-lift qualities.

How to Paint Clouds by James Toogood - step one

The outside edges of the cloud have been softened, but the inside edges are hard.

The image immediately above shows an early stage in the painting of the cloud in Elbow Beach. You can see that the edges on the perimeter of the cloud have already been softened, but the edges within the cloud remain hard.


All the cloud edges are now softened in "Elbow Beach" by James Toogood.

All the cloud edges are now softened in “Elbow Beach” by James Toogood.

Here’s the finished painting again. Gentle scrubbing with clear water on an old synthetic brush lifted some of the paint. This watercolor technique helped me achieve the soft effect throughout the cloud.

I use an old synthetic white sable to lift paint; using a good brush for this watercolor technique would ruin the brush. Also, there are products, such as Winsor & Newton Lifting Preparation, that make staining paints easier to lift.

Images in this article are from Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor (North Light Books) by James Toogood. This article was adapted from the Ask the Experts column in the November 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Other Titles You Might Enjoy

Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor by James Toogood (DVD)
Land Sea and Sky: 40 Painters Share Their Secrets (CD)


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