Unhappy little clouds

I have had three free weekend days to get some real physical painting done and three times I have failed to paint clouds.

Photo of a painting in progress, illustrating poorly painted clouds.

Awful cartoon clouds with a not-bad beginning of a tangerine.

I have two surfaces prepped and ready for paint. Two photos printed at 2 x 3 feet and  mounted on wood panels. The two photographs were taken on a very foggy morning at Pacific City, OR. The kind of morning where the sky blends into the ocean and there is no horizon.

For the first of these paintings, I imagined a Rothko-esque square of sky painted atop the grey ocean-sky. I began well enough with a gradient of blue to pink to yellow - sunrise colors. But each time I have tried to tackle the clouds I keep missing the mark. The results are too dark, slightly wonky, or just wrong.

I am making the same error I always make. I’m jumping to the end before I finish the beginning.

In undergraduate school I was painting and drawing every day. After graduating I took a job as a mural painter. So again, I was painting every day. I went to graduate school; I was painting every day.

When you get that much practice the fundamentals come faster and become sort of automatic. You can plan less and dive right in. I remember one afternoon in my hanging out in my graduate school studio with my girlfriend. She sat at my work table and I grabbed a bench and a drawing board. In no time at all I had a sharp portrait drawn in charcoal pencil. Good likeness, clean, no obvious drawing errors. I still have it in a folder somewhere.

I can’t do that now. Because now I have a job and I work more than I paint. I am literally out of practice. I keep trying to paint like a 23 year old with nothing to do but paint. I skip the fundamentals as if I can, but I can not.

Clouds are complicated. They’re mostly transparent, reflective, and have no real shape. They also don’t sit still for very long.

With a little time to reflect I think I know where I went wrong:

Too small

I jumped to a smaller quarter inch filbert brush way too fast. For a painting of this size that brush is for details.

Remember Bob Ross. Remember his mighty 2” brush. Paint the big shapes first. With two colors and a big brush you can arrive at the silhouette of clouds with no detail and it works far better than the fiddly business I painted.

Quick sketch of the shapes of clouds in a blue sky.

Clouds aren’t white

Clouds don’t have an intrinsic color. Clouds are made of water, and water is clear. They reflect light and mute the colors you see through them. Clouds look white in the bright sun, because they are reflecting bright sunlight. They are dark and grey because you’re standing in their shadow. They are soft blue at the edges when you see the blue sky through them. At sunset they reflect the purple-pink colors back to you.

Clouds have volume

In my three failed attempts to paint a cloudy sky I kept painting cloud-like patterns of color - but I really wasn’t thinking about volume. So I wasn’t thinking about where the light is coming from or where it might cast a shadow. I wasn’t thinking about which part of the clouds were in front and which were in back. I was thinking two dimensionally.

To get my head back in the right place I drew a sphere on my iPad. Light on the top, shadow on the bottom, a little reflected light. This cliche’d exercise works for a reason.

Quick sketch of a blue sphere, lit from the top and casting a small shadow

oh hey a ball.

Clouds have no edges

Well. They have some edges. But clouds are fog in the sky. If you’ve flown through clouds in an airplane you know how everything close to you is a blurry indistinct fog. The edges are an illusion, only appearing from a great distance.

To help get my head right about this, I made a blurry sphere.

Quick painting of a blue sphere with blurry edges, like a round cloud

Or more accurately, I made my sphere blurry with a big blending brush. This already looks more like a cloud then what I had been working on.,

Put it all together

A few doodles on my iPad got my head back to the right place. Without a photo reference, I doodled out the following:

Painted sketch of clouds at sunrise, lit from below

I wouldn’t call this amazing but I would note that it looks like clouds lit by the sunrise below and not fiddly cloud mush in the sky.

Now maybe I can go fix my painting.

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