9 simple tips to painting skies with watercolor

Skies are an essential piece of painting any landscape!

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. Hopefully, this post can shed some light and give you a few helpful tips!

Let’s get into it…

When it comes to painting skies 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. That’s what creates stunning results and makes it fun!

Less is more

The sky is often the lightest value compared to the rest of the landscape, simply adding a few strokes of blue can give you a wispy eye-catching sky.

The image below is an excellent example of how you can add a few wet in wet strokes of blue and purple to create a captivating sky:

painting a simple watercolor sky

Backruns

Backruns are a great way to add texture to your skies!

They do not always produce the same results and that’s 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 watercolor techniques.

easy sunset beginner sky

Lighten the sky toward 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 skies with a lighter value towards the horizon will provide your painting with a sense of depth and distance.

When you paint the sky lighter towards the horizon, it helps the viewer differentiate between the sky and the rest of the scenery. As a result, the elements in the actual landscape become more visible.

For instance, in the value study below you can see the sky is lighter adding more depth to the scene.

Value study of a watercolor landscape

Preserve the white

If you want to paint better watercolor skies then preserving the white paper is a key technique to incorporate.

Using transparent washes and leaving some areas white can help bring the illusion of light when painting an eye-catching watercolor sky.

Take the painting below for example, I have left some of the spaces between the clouds white which gives the illusion of light breaking through.

It’s an excellent way to make your skies more captivating for the viewer.

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 connected to the rest of the painting…

The values and colors used in the sky can oftentimes reflect in the landscape. This is especially true when painting water reflections.

Let’s 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 as an example, this painting captures the light of afternoon time. The colors of the sky and clouds is light blue and light gray, as a result the colors of the landscape are light green.

In this next painting, the sky is gray and foggy, this is reflected with in the rest of the scene:

Mix your colors from scratch

Cloudy watercolor skies 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.

With more experience, I learned that mixing your own grays can give you a much more interesting color palette.

That’s because clouds are never just one shade of gray, it depends on the scenery you’re looking at.

Below is two examples of mixing gray:

  • Alizarin Crimson + Viridian = Dark gray
  • Cobalt blue + burnt sienna = Light gray

The article below, shows you how to observe grays in reference photos, mix them from scratch and a hand full of color recipes you can use to mix gray:

How to mix gray with watercolors

Use a mixture of muted and saturated colors for your sunset skies

With sunset skies, it’s mostly about what colors you use. If you want a more realistic sky you can use a combination of saturated and muted colors.

Take the sunset painting below as an example. You can see musted shades of orange, purple and gray as well as vibrant yellows and oranges.

How to paint a watercolor sunset with clouds

This next painting although beautiful, is a little less realistic because the colors used were all saturated:

Adding dark values to your sunset paintings can make them appear far more alive and vibrant. This is important to consider if you want to create the illusion of light.

If you want to learn more about how to paint sunsets, read my guide and step by step tutorial below:

How to paint a watercolor sunset

Painting night skies with watercolor

Remember how I mentioned above that you should try to lighten the sky toward the horizon? This is especially true when painting night skies. 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.

Using wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques for watercolor skies

You may have heard of these techniques before, if not check out my guide to watercolor techniques for beginners where I explain them in detail.

Wet on wet: Using this technique you can create some stunning spontaneous results. This is because of the unpredictability and soft edges that wet on wet creates.

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.

This was done using a flat brush with the wet-on-dry technique:

Lifting techniques to paint watercolor skies

You can create interesting effects in your watercolor skies by using a damp brush or paper towel to lift paint off the paper.

Here’s how:

Paper towels– You absorb the paint off the paper while it’s still damp by gently dabbing it 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 in 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 carried away.

Now what?

Painting skies 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 and ff you don’t get it the first few times that’s okay, just remember to keep trying.

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

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