Thunderhead - Part I: Nature painting climate change every July and August

Posted by Cindi Tanner on

(Thunderhead over The Superstitions, Mesa Arizona)


My brother and I used to sit on top of our Chevy station wagon and watch the approaching thunderheads in the Eastern sky, dazzled by fingers of lightning and counting out loud the seconds before the sharp thunderclap. It was awesome.

As a teen transplant from balmy Southern California to Phoenix, I was literally blown away by my first terrifying experience with a violent desert microburst courtesy of a serious thunderhead like this one that I photographed 47 years later. The Arizona deserts are big sky territory and provide generous visual inspiration. 

Rendering a turbulent sky as an earthbound artist is a tricky business. It cannot be reduced to a field of blue pocked with white puffs. Just LOOK at it! There are multiple shades of purple, cyan, gray, amber, violet, cream, pale pink, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, charcoal, (sometimes green!), and actually very few patches of brilliant, searing white. This massive powerhouse has something to say! The artist must be sensitive to that cloud voice.


In this Autodesk digital painting intended for our new Mounted Canvas ready-to-hang "Landscapes" collection the composition began with an intriguing stock image of a classic clapboard house sadly past her day:

The original sky was completely deleted with an erasure tool. A pale blue from a wide Fan watercolor brush covered the entire canvas. Next, slight variations of blue were applied with a wide Conceptual 2 brush. Very few, conservative strokes finished the foundational layer of the sky. (I forgot which layer I was on and painted on the photo by accident D:\). Scroll past the template image to see where I applied colors in broad strokes:  

  1. A mottled layer of lavender, gray, and yellow ochre dominated the left ⅓ of the canvas
  2. Variant shades of burnt sienna and yellow ochre were placed at the right horizon line
  3. You can see that I will need to fill in the missing landscape myself. I could not enlarge the house more than this because it would expand beyond the margins of the printer’s template:


Cloud structures were initiated with firm, blunt blocks of color softened again by the Conceptual 2 brush. All of the hard cloud edges were next softened by high transparency strokes of Airbrush, Loaded Watercolor, and wispy cloud tools: 

Note the transition of deep to lighter density from left to right across the sky; the light-handed application of fairly brightly-toned yellow-ochre as both an under layer (lower left horizon) and an overlay (directly above the roof and lower right horizon).

It is true that I did not attempt to build distinct, well-defined thunderhead cloud columns and compact billows as we see in the title photo. I felt that by rendering a more impressionistic version of the thunderhead the threatening energy of storm clouds is still communicated in this less structured version.

Here we have the landscape fleshed out except for the foreground. The lurid colors serve a purpose! This is the under layer for a second interesting stock photo of peeling, cracked paint, and scratches that will suggest an impression of highly stylized dried, caked mud:

This image was next inverted because I wanted the wider swath of brown/beige colors at the top. This layer was rendered slightly transparent overall, and additionally with a broad Soft Eraser tool to remove the hard edges of the original house image and to create transparency to allow some of the bright under layer to show through.

Note also that the house (particularly the clapboard) has been influenced by many layers of the Conceptual 2 and Rough Art Pencil tools; exaggerated mottling achieved with Chalk and Big Sea Spray tools. This transformed the house from a blatant blue-green-white palette to a warmer albeit slightly darker and dryer palette. Warmer tones were likewise added to the landscape along with warm turquoise, yellow, coral, and davy’s gray accents. More trees were added behind the house as well as a field on the opposite background. I also felt like adding things to the garage; you probably can't see a cable draped inside the shadows and something blue in the shadows. Maybe it's part of an old car door, bucket, or a piece of equipment, I don't know! Here is the completed file once again for reference:

PROJECT REFLECTIONS: Coming from an old school, self-taught watercolor world, it felt traitorous to incorporate photographs into my composition. My watercolors were never the result of tracing or anything but my eyeball and sometimes a standard school ruler. My son James, however, is a trained multi-media artist. He reasoned with me by the power of demonstration and comparative examples from scores of impressively talented artists. ART is not compromised because you happened to use different elements and technologies in your composition. Of course, this is true! I was just being weird about it.

RESOURCES FOR YOU: I hope you feel encouraged and excited to experiment with composite compositions! A great place to start is to collect royalty-free-free images and/or images in the public domain, as well as your own photographs. Create your own digital image reference library. Organize your images in categories that make sense to you. Don't collect images that are too small, have low resolution, or are protected by copyright!

Understand the critical importance of file types (jpg, tiff, png, pdf, etc.), file sizes, and how resolutions or pixel densities impact results. These qualifiers are essential when creating products for posting online vs hardcopy print form!

Here are some handy links to launch your digital art journey:

10 Types of Image File Extensions and When to Use Them by Jessie Lee Nichols

Image Size and Resolution Explained

Pixabay free images

Unsplash free images

6 Websites That Offer Free Images for Commercial Use

31 Free Public Domain Image Websites

While you're ready to act on this encouragement, please do two things:

1) Keep looking up↑! Clouds are magical!

2) Look at your doors; they're naked. We can fix that.

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