Pastel Pointers for Painting Clouds | Painting the Sky with Pastel Part 2

Because clouds are such a major aspect of the beauty of the sky, painting clouds plays an important role many successful landscape paintings. They provide an artist with the means to add visual texture and counterpoint movement to what would otherwise be a stagnant section of a landscape composition—the flat sky. This is why, when they’re not present in a scene, many painters go ahead and add them.

Painting clouds successfully can add texture and movement to landscapes, such as High Desert Dance (pastel, 12×18) by Richard McKinley.


When attempting to paint clouds, no matter their type (whether big and fluffy or small and wispy), keep the following cloud-painting tips and pastel techniques in mind:

  • Remember that clouds have form. They are not one-dimensional cutout shapes floating around in the sky. One way to do this is to mentally envision your hand following the cloud’s surface. Pretend you’re touching them. This will help in better understanding where forward-leading edges occur.
  • Associate simple shapes to the clouds, such as a ball, oval, or cube. Clouds may appear softer or harder edged depending on their personality, but the darkest darks and lightest lights should never be placed abruptly against an outside edge, even if it appears that way. All that does is flatten the clouds appearance in the sky. Rather, it is best to find a leading edge and place them there.
  • Understand a cloud’s general form, the position of the sun, and your relationship to both; it will make the placement of highlights and shadows much easier.
  • While an airplane may be capable of flying through a cloud, visually they have bulk. It’s the artist’s job to indicate that to the viewer.
  • Look for color temperature variations within the gray appearance of the clouds. Typically, lighter areas will appear warmer. Very light, warm gray pastels represent this well.
  • Cloud shadows will often appear violet gray, reflecting the warmer temperature of the earth. Cloud shadows should rarely be painted darker in value than areas of open blue sky. They may appear darker due to their color temperature and proximity to lighter value cloud areas but it is an optical illusion. Only dense storm clouds will have shadows darker than a blue sky.
  • Sporadic indications of rain in a stormy sky can appear either dark or light depending upon their surroundings. This is influenced by whether light is behind or in front of the rainfall. In a highly contrasted sky, the indication of rain may appear light in one section and transform to dark in another.
  • When I paint rain, instead of making a pastel mark in the direction of the rainfall, I like to start with the broad side of a pastel stick, set it down in the direction of the rainfall, and gently move horizontally across the painting’s surface. A slight tapping and dragging of a finger to soften edges finishes the look. When done properly, this technique gives the rain a shimmering appearance. It appears less drawn and more natural.

Hopefully, these pastel tips, along with the sky-painting tips discussed in last week’s post, will help you to better represent the source of all light within your landscape paintings—the sky.

Five Years of Pastel Pointers! This month marks five years of inspiring tips and instruction in the Pastel Pointers Blog with Richard McKinley. We’d like to offer our thanks to Richard for sharing his expertise so generously—and regularly. His weekly posts (approximately 260 in total) have provided enlightenment on all things art-related and have brightened our Mondays with a generous helping of creative nourishment. Help us thank Richard with your comments below!



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6 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers for Painting Clouds | Painting the Sky with Pastel Part 2

  1. RMcKinley

    Thanks for the nice comments on the anniversary of the Pastel Pointers blog. Hard to believe that Editor Anne Hevener’s idea from 5 years ago would still be going strong. So much of what is shared in the blog applies to painting in general but getting to sing the praises of the beloved medium of Degas has been a continuing pleasure!

  2. pcworks75

    Richard, I’ve been on the waiting list for four of your classes and never made it, but your blogs, DVDs, and book have kept me more inspired and learning so much that I actually am getting better, or so my painting group says. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your knowledge. I look forward to seeing your work here and in the Pastel Journal.

  3. iris

    Your knowledge, patience and encouragement have been an inspiration to me for many years. It has been an honor and very gratifying experience to have taken classes from you , reading your blog, and using your book and videos. Thank you and God bless you.

  4. ecloudy

    Thank you Richard. Until the day that I am able to take a class from you in person, this blog and your book have been invaluable lessons. Thank you for sharing what you have learned.