9 simple tips to painting skys with watercolors

Sky’s can be an essential part of painting beautiful watercolor landscapes. I’m always excited to paint the sky because there are so many variations and each one produces something different. However, they can also be tricky to master and discouraging at first. That is why I have written this post, in hopes that painting skys will be easier for you.

When it comes to painting sky’s I believe in letting the water do most of the job for you. Painting the sky is not an exact science; you may use the same technique but the results won’t be identical each time. Thats what creates stunning results and makes it fun!


Backruns are a great way to add texture to your sky’s! They do not always produce the same results and thats what makes them exciting. Backruns are caused by adding clear water onto the paper while the paint is still damp. This causes the pigment on the paper to move to the edges of the water drop. Read more about them here.

easy sunset beginner sky

Lighten the sky towards the horizon

Ever wonder how you can use the sky to add depth and dimension to your painting?

If you go outside and look at the sky you’re most likely going to notice the colors gradually becoming lighter towards the horizon. This means painting your sky’s with a lighter value towards the horizon will provide your painting with a sense of depth and distance.

Moreover with the sky lighter towards the horizon the viewer can differentiate between the lanscape and the sky. This makes the lanscape elements more visible.

For instance, in the painting below you can see the sky is lighter at the horizon making the top of the trees appear brighter.

Preserve the white

Preserving that white is a key factor when incorporating an eye-catching sky in your landscape. Watercolors tend to have a transparent characteristic, this means that the light can pass through the pigment and reflect back. This causes the pigments to appear bright and vibrant .

With this in mind it’s important not to do to much to the sky, lay the pigments, let them dry and paper do the rest.

Take the painting below for example, I have done very little to the sky and so the paint is still transparent. This resulted in a warm sunrise scenery.

Watercolor sunrise painting

Connection of the sky and the rest of the painting

It may seem like the sky is a single part of any landscape, however the sky is actually connected to the rest of the painting…

The values and colors used in the sky can often times reflect in the landscape.

Lets put it this way; If the sky is cloudy for example and most of the colors you have laid consist of cold grayish blue hues then the land beneath the sky the colors will have a similar color temperature.

If however, you are painting a sunset and have a warm sky then the colors of the rest of the landscape will have warmer hues as well. Take the image below for example, the colors of the land reflect the color of the sky.

Also, in the next painting you can see that I’ve used a warmer grey to complement the warm green hues of the grass.

Painting cloudy skys with watercolors

Cloudy sky’s can be a real pain, at least they were for me when I was a beginner…

I had a vision of what I wanted them to look like but I could never seem to get it right. They always ended up looking muddy and overworked.

Of course my first issue was the colors I was using; I would always use one color only, paynes gray. For the lighter areas I would dilute the paint and for the darker areas I would leave it concentrated.

Later on I found these colors worked better for me:

  • Ultramarine+Burnt Sienna= Dark blue gray
  • Prussian blue+Raw umber= Light gray

This article also mentions how you can mix different grays. Maybe you can try different variations and decide what works best for you.

Painting sunset skies with watercolor

The beauty of painting sunsets is that the rest of the landscape doesn’t have to be too detailed. A huge plus in my opinion! With sunset skies it’s more about colors and shapes. Take the painting below for example; the sky set the mood for the rest of the painting. The yellows, oranges and blues are what make the painting attractive.

Adding dark values in your sunset paintings can make them appear far more alive and vibrant. For example, in the painting above the dark boat silhouette provides the painting with contrast making the yellow in the sky appear brighter.

You do however a have to keep in mind the shadows and reflections of silhouettes this adds a 3 dimensional illusion.

Painting night sky’s with watercolor

Remember how I mentioned above that you should try lighten the sky towards the horizon? This is especially true when painting night sky’s. If the paint is darker towards the horizon then the landscape beneath won’t be visible.

Similarly to painting sunsets, adding contrast to your night skies will bring the sky to life. In this case however, adding white stars or the moon can provide your painting with contrast.

Moreover, contrast will also help the colors in the background appear darker.

Wet on wet and wet on dry

You may have heard of these techniques before, if not check out this article where I explain them in detail.

Wet on wet: Using this technique you can create some deliciously spontaneous results. With the colors already premixed on your paint palette you simply pre-wet the paper and add the pigment. Letting the water do most of the work for you.

Wet on wet works great for producing soft gradients, take the painting below the sky gradually gets lighter towards the horizon:

Wet on dry: If you want to create more texture in your sky you can use this technique. With this technique you will be able to produce harder edges and more defined lines. Take the painting below as an example. You can see compared to the one above the brush strokes can be seen more clearly.

Absorbing the pigment

You can create interesting effects in your sky’s by using materials to absorb the pigment off the paper. Materials such as paper towels, sponges and even your own brush.

Paper towels– You absorb the paint off the paper while it’s still damp by gently dabbing with a paper towel. Try folding it in different ways to achieve a variety of shapes and sizes.

Sponge– Sponges can be used to mimic cloud shapes on your painting. Once again just gently dab small areas of the paper to pick up the pigment

Brush– This one might be a little trickier than the other two. But you will have more control if you use your brush. For this to work clean off the brush and remove the excess water on a paper towel. Now you can dab the paper and the pigment should come off.

*Note: It can be very easy to get carried away with absorbing the pigment so remember not to get too caried away.

Now what?

Painting sky’s with watercolor can be tricky to master, but don’t let that stop you! Now that you’ve got some guidance all you need to do is practice. Don’t be afraid to let that paint flow. If you don’t get it the first few times thats okay, just remember to keep trying.

Now grab some paper, pour some water, unpack your paints and brushes and paint away!

Also don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and let me know if these tips helped you in any way 🙂

If you would like me to write a post on painting clouds, let me know in the comments below!

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