Clouds – beautiful yet oh so tricky to paint! They often turn out looking too dark in a painting. They can also look toooooo solid. And what about when they look a bit two-dimensional?! Argh!! Enter Liz Haywood-Sullivan! Liz is a master at painting clouds and all manner of skies. I knew she’d be able to help us all so I asked if she’d contribute a guest blog on the topic. I’m delighted to say she was happy to share some thoughts and ideas.
Don’t know Liz Haywood-Sullivan’s work? Take a peek.
Now before I hand the blog over to Liz, here’s a wee bit about her…
Liz Haywood-Sullivan Bio
Liz Haywood-Sullivan, PSA-MP, IAPS/MC, is a representational artist specializing in pastel landscapes. Dedicated to working in the pastel medium since 1996, she teaches nationally and internationally. Liz is a sought after judge and demonstrator for pastel societies and arts organizations around the world. She is a President Emerita of the International Association of Pastel Societies (2013-2017) and is the author of the popular book Painting Brilliant Skies and Water in Pastel. Her pastel paintings have won numerous awards, have been featured in national, international and museum exhibitions, and are included in private and corporate collections worldwide. See more of her work here.
And now here’s Liz 🙂
Chasing clouds…this term is the best way I know to describe the attempt to paint clouds on location. They just won’t stand still and pose for you the way a tree does. How do you capture them? How do you slow them down long enough for your pastel painting to catch up?
Why not just paint clouds from photographs? That seems to be an easy answer. Cameras can be a wonderful tool for painters – but you should be aware of their limitations, in particular when it comes to shooting clouds.
Most obviously, photos flatten and reduce the dimensionality you see when observing clouds in person. But they alter critical value relationships as well. When studying clouds look at how close in value the lightest areas are to the darkest ones – realize that photos increase this contrast. Greater contrast will enhance cloud edges and makes clouds look heavier than they are. Look closely at the edges of clouds to see how translucent they are, and how much of the sky is visible behind the edges
Every Photographic Device Is Different – What Do Your Devices Do?
Try this. With your camera, cellphone, or recording device, take a photograph on a partially cloudy day, one that contains both clouds and sky. Hold up the image and compare the photo with the actual sky – observe what your device does. My camera increases contrast over the entire image, making the sky darker and making clouds much more contrasty. My cellphone does the same, but also adds a strong shift towards blue.
If you paint directly from your photos, try to use your photos as reference only. Remember the scene you shot as best you can, and when painting, compensate for the distortions caused by your recording device. Also, try going into some of your device’s editing programs and make adjustments while on site, using the actual sky to guide you.
Do Cloud Studies
If clouds don’t stand still, and you want to paint them en plein air how do you do that?
Try doing cloud studies. Lots of them. From life. Doing regular cloud study sessions will improve your fluency in drawing them. You will begin to understand their language of translucency and patterns of movement. You’ll see how light bounces around and reflects within a cloud form. You’ll observe how clouds drift, evolve, grow, and dissipate all within moments. You become aware of their vapor nature.
Slow Down To Really See
To study clouds in this manner you will need to slow down to really “see” the aspects of a cloud. It takes concentration to teach your hand to follow and draw what you are seeing. Choose a small section, or passage, of a cloud, not the whole sky. Focus on drawing each passage for five minutes. After five minutes the clouds will have changed, so move onto the next study. This invaluable eye-hand drawing coordination is essential training for any artist, and this is an excellent way to practice it.
Materials For Cloud Studies
This part is really easy. Three items, that’s all you need.
- Strathmore Toned Gray sketchpad – 18 x 24 in
- Derwent Fine Art Charcoal – XL 06 White (Edited April 2023 – this item doesn’t appear to be currently available. An alternative is General’s Compressed White charcoal.)
- Vine Charcoal
I suggest working in a large spiral-bound sketchpad. Working at 18 x 24 in helps keep you loose and making large fluid marks. It prevents you from getting caught up in the details. Do quick five-minute studies that are essentially gestural drawings similar to what you might do as warm-ups in a figure class.
I use mid-tone gray paper with a piece of vine charcoal and a big piece of white chalk. Yup, chalk, not pastel. These are big bold messy sketches, nothing precious, nothing meant to frame and put on the wall. Chalk and charcoal work perfectly. Strathmore makes a beautiful mid-tone pad of paper in gray or beige. The gray color is a perfect starting midtone for clouds.
I begin by developing any darker areas with the charcoal, smearing it with my hand to create a nuanced wispy look. Then the chalk goes on top to pull out highlights, again blended in to create the look I want. In a five-minute sketch there is no time to fuss around with details, plus the details keep moving anyway. You are just trying to capture a moment of time before it passes. All you have time to do is react. You don’t even have time to really think about what you are doing – sometimes not a bad thing.
How Doing Cloud Studies Can Improve Your Plein Air (and Studio) Painting
Drawing cloud studies will translate to your painting by developing your knowledge of cloud forms – becoming muscle memory when you go to paint them.
When you set up to do a plein air painting, including a sky with clouds, here is a suggested way to proceed:
1. Start with a thumbnail and or value study. Establish the land mass composition, and start watching the sky carefully.
2. As the clouds pass by you might sketch a few of the cloud arrangements that would look good in your painting. Just do quick gestural notes, with big shapes, no details.
3. As you start to work on the painting, continue watching the sky. At some point you will see a cloud arrangement that fits your painting composition. Sketch in the location of the clouds on your painting, locking in the forms. No real details just large shapes. You might go back to your sketchbook and do a quick study to refer to later, like shown here.
4. Although the actual clouds will be moving, refer to other areas in the sky to capture accurate color and values of the cloud forms you have locked in.
Muscle Memory Can Be Pretty Powerful
So how do you paint from the sky when the clouds have shifted from when you locked in the composition?
This is where doing all those clouds studies come into play. You essentially paint in the clouds by using these three things:
1. First, follow the sky shapes (#3 above) you locked in on your painting.
2. As you begin to paint the sky, look up to the current cloud configuration and find passages that resemble your sketch. The exact cloud shapes will have changed but the lighting and small cloud passages will still be similar enough to work from.
3. Call upon your memory of having done your cloud studies to work these passages together into your painting. The good thing is that there is no perfect cloud shape so you can make it up as you go along and no one will know.
Next time you see a sky full of beautiful clouds all you need is a half hour to capture a handful of studies. Toss a sketchbook, some chalk, and a stick of charcoal in the back of your car to be available at a moments notice. If you practise chasing clouds, you will be well on your way to a better understanding of their nuances, and the knowledge you gain will start showing up in your next cloud paintings. Enjoy!
Wow!!! I love these tips from Liz Haywood-Sullivan on how to practise capturing the ever-changing nature of clouds! I appreciate the idea of doing the studies LARGE! I’ve done studies before but they tend to be small.
Now we’d LOVE to hear from you!! Are these tips helpful? What’s your take on being a cloud chaser? Do you love painting clouds or avoid them like the proverbially plague? Do let us know by leaving a comment. Also feel free to ask Liz any questions about this topic.
Until next time!
PS. At IAPS this year, Liz kindly did a short video with me on painting skies. Since it ties in very nicely with this blog, here it is!
And here’s a link to Liz’s book:
And for those of you who stuck it out to the very end, a bonus image from Liz Haywood-Sullivan!!