Tuesday, February 14, 2012


What could be more beautiful than the elegance of delicate clouds decorating the soaring blue sky? However, too often clouds become a muddy mess or heavy, leaden blobs. Here are a few suggestions to help you find the structure of clouds and keep them light and airy, clean and bright.

Many people look at clouds and become baffled at the complexity they see there. Think of a cloud as a box, having a top, bottom, and sides. I know this seems far-fetched, since a box appears to contrast sharply with the loose, unstructured nature of most clouds, but if you will begin with the idea that clouds have a structure such as a box it will go a long way in helping you configure clouds properly in many instances. This simple look at the underlying structure should begin to help you see that even the wispiest cloud has three-dimensional form.

Coronado Sky, 9x12"

Think of a glass plate the size of the sky, stretching overhead to the horizon. Mentally place your cloud boxes on this sheet of glass, looking upward through the glass plate. Think about how the clouds grow smaller near the horizon, overlapped by the larger, nearer clouds that float higher in the sky overhead. You see far more of the bottoms of the nearby, overhead clouds than you do of the clouds farther away that are much lower in the sky. Thus, painting the shadowed bottoms of clouds will identify their height in the sky.

Have you ever noticed that clouds are never still? If not, try painting on location and you’ll soon observe their ever-changing habit. The wind blows persistently from one direction. You’ll get far more believable results when you compose clouds with this motion in mind. If you’re painting from a photograph, identify the “point of wind”, the direction from which the wind is coming. You’ll often have visual clues such as crested cloud tops, ragged flags of clouds trailing behind or swelling cloud tops showing strong updrafts. Keep this directional thrust in mind as you do a completed underdrawing of the clouds.

Because so often clouds seem amorphous and vague an underdrawing to plan shapes, planes and values is very important. Many times students become baffled at the complexity and seeming indistinction of clouds and fail to plan these elements. You simply cannot abandon the clouds to a formless set of loosely sketched lines. Instead spend time analyzing where the clouds are blowing, how they overlap, and what tones best will describe what you see.
Scent of Rain, 18x24"

Clouds are among the lightest values in the landscape. They’re light in color and they float in the lightest plane of the painting, the sky. Remember that even the dark bases of the clouds in shadow are among the lighter values in the painting. Dark clouds are never darker than the earth values because they block the light, casting shadows that cause the earth to be darker. An overly dark cloud becomes the proverbial “lead balloon”! Think of it this way: clouds are made of water droplets and ice, through which light filters to one degree or another. No self-respecting cloud could possibly be as dark as the shadowed rock of a mountain. So keep the clouds light, even in the darkest of instances.

Don’t trust photographs for evidence of this. Often a photo will give the illusion that dark storm clouds are as dark or darker than the land plane, but further examination usually proves that it’s the fault of the camera’s habit of averaging the light. Your own observations will be far more accurate and valuable, so the next time a cloudy sky threatens, spend some time outdoors analyzing the values you see. Squint one eye and close the other and ask yourself where the darkest dark resides, and just see if it isn’t in the land plane. Remember, too, that we are not in the business of painting the exceptions we see, but applying those generalities we observe regularly.

Clouds have a special glow to them because they hold light inside. The water or ice they’re composed of tends to bounce radiance around inside, creating a delightful scattering of light. Carefully retain the light in the center of the cloud to create this special glow, rather than giving clouds only a stark white edge. This silver lining effect is only found when the cloud is directly intervening between your eye and the sun. Instead, pull light from the center of the cloud outward to the edges, while using light and shaded areas to describe thicker or thinner areas, to some degree or another.

The edge of a cloud in a clear blue sky can be etched with brilliant clarity or can be slightly grayed where cloud banks overlap. Small cloud fragments, broken off from a cloud mass and silhouetted against the sky, are often slightly darker in value and cooler in color because the sky shows through them.

Twenty minute cloud studies done on various colors, Canson paper

What color is a cloud? White is a childishly simple description, since clouds are virtually all colors. Generally, a cloud is warm on top, because of the warm color of the sun, and cool on the bottom, which is in shadow. Don’t limit yourself to white, gray and blue, but paint clouds using a wide palette of light and medium-light colors. They will look far more realistic than mere gray accomplishes.

Remember that the Law of Diminishing Intensity (per Carlson) states that the atmosphere cools and lightens all colors but slightly darkens and dulls whites and near-whites. Clouds, which are rarely ever pure white, appear rosy-white or yellowish-white on the horizon, perhaps due in part to pollution. Paintings from the 1800s and earlier show little evidence of such yellowing, appearing to be more pale, pale rose. Clouds at the zenith of the sky can contain brilliant white, especially in contrast to the deep blue of the sky.

Why do most beginner’s paint clouds too chalky-white? The answer lies in a simple mistake that we make when we tilt our heads upwards to look at the sky overhead. As we look straight up we see the very darkest and most brilliant blue of the sky, and the very whitest clouds. We might assume that this high contrast of deep blue and blinding white is the norm and paint clouds and sky that way, as children often do. But how often do we paint the sky directly overhead? Instead, to determine the value of your clouds, look off toward the horizon. Compare the value of the sky and clouds, noticing that as the sky lightens on its journey toward the horizon the clouds progressively darken, dulling slightly, until the values nearly need. This beginning one-third arc of the sky, after all, is most often the part we include in our paintings, not the sky immediately above us.

What is it about gray skies that can make the landscape so intensely beautiful? I was recently driving along a highway on a cloudy morning when I saw the light on some nearby trees. The colors of the highway itself, along with the glowing trunks and foliage, were breathtakingly intense. I thought it odd that an everyday piece of pavement, the ordinary tree trunks and usual green foliage looked so powerful. Then I realized that part of the reason was the dominant neutral of the gray behind it all. The clouds had added moisture to the atmosphere, which also seemed to intensify the colors, making them seem somewhat more saturated, but it was that gorgeous gray that really caught my eye.

Gray is one of those mysterious, almost unexplainable colors. Most pastelists tend to grab for the color on their wide-ranging palette that they need, and we certainly have grays. Pastel sets usually come with a standard warm and cool gray, but these ‘out of the tube’ colors seem static. There are occasional grays made by various manufacturers that are interesting, but I’ve found that making my own grays provides ones that are far livelier. This requires a little more advance planning, but it’s worth the time and effort to achieve a glowing gray.

Technically gray is arrived at by mixing two complementary colors. You’ll often hear about graying a color by layering the opposite color of the same value on top, which is an effective tool. However, this graying affect of one color laid atop another is different than mixing up colors to arrive at a gray. When I lay down only two colors and try to mix a gray—colors that are opposite on the color wheel—they usually become rather drab and boring, if they end up gray at all. It takes a trained eye and a very even hand to find and use the exact opposite colors, as well as the exact same value, and exactly equal amounts of each color. This combination becomes more a dulled color than a true gray, so I’ve derived a means of creating a mixture of colors that makes a lot more interesting grays.

Let’s say you want to paint the deep, intense gray clouds I saw behind the grove of trees. You have to start somewhere and I’ve discovered that often this need to choose one color to begin with can be confounding. You simply have to ask yourself if you had to choose one color, a color that you’d find on a simple primary-secondary color wheel, what would you choose? Ask yourself if it is warm or cool, which helps you get closer to the area on the color wheel. If warm, is it more orange, red, or yellow? If cool, is it more purple, blue or green? This will be your target color.

Next you want to identify the value of your gray. How dark or light is it? You have to identify the value in relationship to all the other values around it, of course, which is why doing a charcoal underdrawing will help you. Once you have completed your value drawing you can simply hold a value finder card over the area of the gray to identify how dark it is. Then you can find your target color in the correct value. Did you decide on purple? Make some marks a piece of paper until you find a purple of that value. If it’s blue or red or green or yellow or any color doesn’t matter. Find the right value.

Once you have your target color in the proper value, you need to find two other colors of the same, or very close to the same, value. I suggest you will find layering three colors to be far more effective than using only two. You usually need to establish enough depth in the pastel on your paper to make it paintlike, which requires at least three passes with your colors, perhaps more. To that end, using your target color, locate the triad of colors on the color wheel. This means that if you have, say, a purple of the right value, you want to find an orange and a green in the same value (secondary triad). These three colors make a triangle on the color wheel. Maybe you used a red as your target color. If so, your triad, or triangle of colors, will be red, blue and yellow (primary triad). What matters is that the values remain very closely the same. One problem is that yellow just doesn’t darken very well, and the nature of cloudy skies is that they tend to be darker in value. Dark yellow tends to go towards a very ugly greenish-yellow hue, or into browns that become reddish, which makes the resulting gray rather sickly looking. As a result, I tend far more often to use the secondary triad of orange, purple and green to make animated and appealing grays.

Don’t necessarily start with your target color, but head that direction by layering the other colors in place first. For instance, place the orange and green and then the purple, heading gently toward your target color. You’ll most likely have to mix these colors using multiple layers, allowing the sticks to become almost like a stiff brush as the edge begins to blend colors into one grayish purple. You’ll find with practice that the final color layered in place, in this case the purple, is the one that determines the flavor of what you see. You can do this mixture with any color, of course, not just the primary and secondary colors, and with some practice you’ll begin to have a sense of which three colors will make the gray you’re heading for. You can also do this in any value you need, whether light pale gray, medium gray, dark moody gray or any value in between.

Why does the secondary triad work so well? I think it’s because the three colors you use end up combining all the colors from the primaries and secondaries. You end up using an entire rainbow of color, all in the same value, making your grays dynamic. Instead of flat, boring out-of-the-tube neutrals you have every color dancing together in a neutral, which in turn allows any other color used nearby to harmonize with the lively gray. This is a good part of the reason why the grimy pavement of the highway, the ordinary trunks and the plain foliage all looked quite stunning, I believe. No matter what color they were the gray contained it, allowing a marriage that highlighted each color.

To paint a vital and attractive sky, try finger-blending your pastels to soften colors and edges, yet keep the clouds clean and bold. While blending pastels has a reputation for making muddy colors, you can layer and blend several times and then recover the sparkling quality of pastels. This technique works well on fine, deep-grained sanded surfaces or soft, absorptive paper. Some of the deeper sandpapers can abrade fingertips, although when used carefully they render beautiful results.

Since the sky is generally the lightest value in a landscape, keep your paper tone light or medium. This will help you structure your values correctly and will keep the colors glowing. If your tone is dark you have to work too hard to blend over it, which wastes precious pastels.

Start with an underdrawing in extra soft thin vine charcoal, adding mediums and highlights with a pastel pencil. It’s fine to compose from a photograph, but don’t try to recreate it. Carefully sketch in all of the values and details as you correct compositional problems and make decisions about contrast and values. This drawing will lie beneath your painting and will be blended into your colors, so be sure that you’re happy with it before going on to the next step.

Begin your painting with the very darkest colors, which may only be medium-light in value because the tone of the sky is so light. Don’t blend yet. Lightly lay in the medium and then the light colors. Within any one area be sure to put down two or three colors of the same or similar values to keep colors lively. Remember that colors of like values will seem to melt together, lying in the same plane of the picture. When you reach the light colors, don’t use white to begin. Save the lightest lights, whether white or any other color, for the very last touches on the painting, several layers later.

To create lively and beautiful grays use complementary or tertiary colors over one another. A light layer of lavender, peach and green, in any order, will result in a subtle hue if the colors you select are close in value, as will using yellow, pink and blue. Layering green over pink, blue over orange or lavender over yellow can make lovely grayed colors. Rather than reaching for the gray pastels in your palette, begin with these color suggestions and once you’re happy with the grays you’ve mixed, layer the box grays over the top only if needed. Make two or three passes so that you have at least three layers of color all over the paper. Keep these layers loose, but be sure that you have enough pigment covering the paper to blend without revealing too much of the ground. Don’t add any details.

Now comes the magic: With your fingers or the heel of your hand, lightly blend all the pastel together. Be loose and free, moving your whole arm. If you’ve been careful to use colors of the same or similar values, the blended colors are rich and beautiful, not at all muddy. Stand back or squint to see how your sky begins to take shape on the paper.

If you see areas that need changing, use a foam house painting brush (the kind found at home stores, used to paint trim) to wipe out selected parts. Then simply re-establish your colors and blend again. The delightful part is that in places where values change you can lose the edges, achieving soft transitions along the edges and making the cloud shapes quite believable. After blending, remain open to the possibility that a somewhat muddy color might become a subtly beautiful shade if you add another layer over it and blend it in place. Don’t give up too easily!

For your second pass over the paper, begin to work back over the sky with a fresh layer of the same colors, starting with the darks (which will most likely be medium values) and working through to the lights again, correcting color if needed or adding new ones to give your sky some zing. Blend this layer just as you did the first. You can add many layers of blended color, but be careful not to overfill the grain of the paper. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you find “dead” spots in the paper where it won’t accept any more pastel. If this happens you can wipe out with the foam brush, as described above, or use a small mask spray to place a fine layer of fixative in the immediate area and lightly work over that when it’s dry. As your skill in blending grows, you’ll learn to stop before overfilling the grain.

In the final layer, create details with the same palette of colors you used in the underpainting. Now is the time to catch the elegant edge of a translucent cloud or delicate trailing wisps of ragged gray clouds. If you’ve been wise and saved the white for last, you can create brilliance with touches of it in the appropriate areas. Your goal is to use less and less blending as you layer in details so that you actually create a three-dimensional quality in your sky and clouds, and recapture the sparkling glow of unblended pastels.

One word of warning: Blending on deep sandpaper causes sore fingertips that can even begin to bleed. If you’re new to this technique, take it easy at first. Over time you’ll know just when to stop, but in the beginning you can blend too much and not realize how much it will hurt. If your fingers are too sensitive, try blending with a Sofft sponge, plastic eraser, tissue paper, paper towel or wear a surgical glove or finger cot. Each of these will give different effects that you might like, but in my opinion nothing works better than your fingers. It’s also a good idea to wear a barrier cream to keep from absorbing anything harmful through your skin. When applying it, remember to scratch your fingernails lightly over your palm to be sure the cream is under your fingernails.

With a little practice you’ll be able to layer and blend pastel to create wonderfully soft clouds. This finger-blending technique is an easy way to catch the drama and beauty of the clouds and sky.

Soft Morning, 8.75 x 13.5" on buttercup yellow Pastelmat


  1. WOW! Your lanscape paintings are gorgeous! I absolutely love your colour mixing and how you layer the various colours. Your post has a great deal of info on it. I'll be back ot try some of them out.

  2. Great, Vanessa. Hope you enjoy!

  3. Hi Deborah,
    I absolutely love your work. Thank you for your gift of this wonderful book.

  4. You're welcome, Cheri. I've enjoyed learning and teaching about painting God's beautiful creation, and sharing this book is a delight.

  5. Dear Deborah

    Thanks for this brilliant blog/book on pastels. There is nothing else like it on the web. I am learning so much and being quite new to pastels I am rapidly becoming hooked! I think your written advice and ideas are fabulous and read them over and over. But I do have one critisism which I hope you are able to accommodate: Your illustrations are all, or almost all, finished paintings. If you could incorporate demonstration-style step-by-step pictures to illustrate the text the effect would be to triple the value of your blog. I know this would entail a lot more work but it would enhance your already excellent and generous work here. This section on skies would certainly benefit from this approach.
    Yours sincerely
    Craig Daniels
    South Africa

  6. Thanks, Craig. Pastel is a wonderfully fun and expressive medium, and I'm so glad the book is of some help to you.

    I'm sure your criticism is valid, and I understand your desire for more, but instead of putting that kind of step-by-step demo here, you can see many more on WetCanvas. Take a look at these threads: http://wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=486953

    Or this: http://wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=625325

    And this one: http://wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=296466

    I hope these help!

  7. Thanks Deborah. I will do so. Since I posted the above comment I saw one small example of a demo sequence in your arial perspective chapter which was just what I was talking of.

    I think the examples you have chosen to illustrate your chapters are excellent for the purpose - it would be a bonus to see how they developed.

    Keep up the great slog to the end as we are all agog for the next chapter!


  8. Craig, I also have DVDs or a streaming video available that shows you the process from paper and pastels through the first layer of color, "Get Started in Pastels: Deborah Secor Paints the Landscape". Check it out here: http://artistsnetwork.tv/c-2-workshops.aspx?fcat=artist&Artist=Deborah%20Secor

  9. This is a wonderful chapter, jam-packed with necessary information to paint beautiful clouds. It's going to take several readings and lots of practice to create tones in gray w/colors that aren't boxed-grays. Thank you for sharing your years of research and practice - your clouds are spectacular!

  10. wonderful gift - I know God is blessing you as He blesses us!

  11. Thank you so much for this ever lovely gift from your gift.. Thank you.

  12. Wow! your sky paintings are beautiful!


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah