Pastel Tutorial | How to Paint Clouds

Follow along with Marc Hanson as he shares his techniques for how to paint clouds with pastels, paying special attention to warm and cool color values and plays of light and shadow, as seen in the August 2008 issue of The Pastel Journal.


Step 1:

This photo shows how I lay out and adhere the paper to a backing board. I like to use ¾-inch Gatorboard for this. It’s not as hard a surface as hardboard, and is also very smooth—no bumps under the paper. I use a 2H lead in a lead holder to draw both the perimeter dimensional lines and a basic layout of my composition. The tape holds some tension on the paper so that if I use a wash on it the paper remains flat. If need be, I can lift the little pieces of tape and gently stretch the paper taught.

First step in a cloud-painting tutorial | how to paint clouds


Step 2:

At this stage I lay in gouache. I use gouache because I get a more intensely colored stain than I would using regular watercolor. The gouache isn’t thick; it’s actually as thin as a watercolor wash would be. This simply allows me to “pre-color” large masses before using the pastel to fill in the areas. In this case, I want to have a warm sienna-like wash under the cooler blue gray clouds to act as a complement to the clouds. This takes about one minute to apply.

Second step in a cloud-painting tutorial | how to paint clouds


Step 3:

In this step, I look for the balance of lights, darks and the movement within the largest shapes. The pastel is applied broadly, not filling in any area completely but keeping the overall areas fluid, ready to be altered if need be. For a given passage, I usually start with the darkest color/value within that passage, building from dark to light.

Third step in a cloud-painting tutorial | how to paint clouds


Step 4:

Now I look for a simplified version of what the end result will generally look like. Mostly working in the sky, I’m not modeling too much and am trying to keep the areas of major differences separated. Here you can see that the light-value, warm yellow in the upper portion isn’t yet integrated into the cooler cloud masses with much sensitivity. That mass has to first read correctly as a shape in relation to the whole before the edges are taken into consideration.

Fourth step in a cloud-painting tutorial | how to paint clouds


Step 5:

In this step, I’ve worked more in the sky, refining the relationships between the light on the clouds and the light in the shadows. There are many subtle shades of gray in both areas. At this stage I also begin to broadly lay in the land mass and the variation there. I’m conscious of warm vs. cool while working the entire area. Values are close and must be kept darker than the sky. The variety is in the color temperature.

Fifth step in a cloud-painting tutorial | how to paint clouds



I continue with a lot of very subtle work in the sky and on the land mass. I decided that the road in Step 5 didn’t make sense. It came and went but didn’t add anything to the composition, so I eliminated that and added a field of wildflowers in the middle distance. It’s not close enough to warrant any detail, and is close in color so as not to detract from the sky and become a painting about the foreground.

Finished painting named "Golden Rays" | how to paint clouds

Golden Rays (pastel; 12x11½) by Marc Hanson



Learn more about making clouds move with Jannene Behl, who provides another tutorial on how to paint clouds in pastel. For more on severe skies, check out Albert Handell’s article on creating dramatic skies with pastel. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try painting clouds in watercolor instead!

Marc Hanson was featured in the August 2008 issue of The Pastel Journal, in an article written by Deborah Secor. To read the article, see the August issue.




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