Thunderhead - Part II: Watercolor sky guide

Posted by Cindi Tanner on

While our respect for the mighty cumulonimbus springs eternal, our hope to portray it artistically is a challenge. We strive to produce a sense of movement and authority in the thunderhead-presiding sky. 

Color, the give and take of contrast, density, and texture, the relaxed, sweeping stroke adjacent to a compact, structured element is often an emotional decision tinged with fear if a watercolor brush is involved. A real, natural bristle brush, dripping with water and pigment and potential to either nail it admirably or botch it miserably. Seconds count with grenades and watercolor and the paper is very, very unforgiving.

Let’s review an example of a watercolor painting on hot press 140 lb. watercolor paper incorporated into a digital art composition. (I hope you caught that: No, I don’t use cold press rag paper. It’s nasty expensive and it selfishly soaks up EV.ER.Y.THING. I know it's considered the professional choice, but seriously, it's awful. If you want to try it, buy only one sheet and experience the horror just once. Stock up on 140 lb. hot press paper)!  Our case study, “Elgin, Grand County Utah”:

  1. After a detailed pencil sketch, a quick, broad wash of clear water is the first treatment to the blank paper intended to become sky over this little farmhouse
  2. The wet brush draws the water outside the penciled edge of what will later become the sky
  3. While the paper is glistening wet is the time to strike with confidence! A loaded brush filled with color is applied to the wet: hence, a wet on wet technique. You can see I quickly pulled a #8 tapered brush pregnant with a blend of Manganese Blue and Cerulean Blue across the entire width of the upper portion of the paper. The brush was immediately whisked in clean water and returned to the paper with a much less potent pigment load (dipping into a little Cobalt Turquoise Light and Cobalt Blue in addition to the other blues) and drawn horizontally a second and third time leaving gaps between these two strokes. The dry area destined for the thunderhead was mostly avoided. The paint naturally creates a sharp line at this juncture and pigment tends to pool against the pencil border between wet and dry (see this on the right side of the thunderhead).
  4. A very wet brush with a hint of Yellow Ochre kissed with Rose Madder is tapped lightly to select areas of the still wet sky and as the first colors applied to the dry thunderhead column. 
  5. QUICKLY (the paper is beginning to dry!), an extremely watery Ultramarine Violet is applied at the horizon line on either side of what will be the farmhouse.
  6. A crumpled paper towel is used to blot specific areas, keeping only a new, unused portion of the towel per each blotting; the “o” shaped cloud formation at the upper left and other texture features are the result of this action.
  7. Layers of less wet brush strokes of Payne’s Gray and Ultramarine Violet; and again with very watery Burnt Umber as well as a clean, watery application of Ultramarine Violet are added to the thunderhead structures. Some of these are blotted. 
  8. A final application of medium wet Yellow Ochre with a tiny bit of Permanent Alizarin Crimson is added as the top layer in various forward billows of the cloud. Note that NO white paint was used. (The house is not painted until after the sky is completely dry).

The eight steps listed above can be anxious and the watercolorist is not always totally satisfied with results. The experiment can feel like herding cats as often as Christmas morning when we are surprised by the dynamic trio of pigment, water, and paper. 

Some traditional watercolor anxiety is eliminated with the grace of digital technology. It is still very much a dance of instinct and victory vs awkwardness and regret. Watercolor is my first love and I have always felt more comfortable with a brush in hand than a pencil. Thanks to James and his patient encouragement, I experienced a game-changer transition from brush and paper to digital art. After the tears and frustration to be adrift in completely foreign territory, I feel to exclaim: Behold! The Holy eraser/delete tool doth provide blessed relief, and ye may repent of thine afflicted attempt to begin anew!

Here is the digitally modified version:

You may recognize the same stock image of cracked, scratched paint referenced in the previous post. This layer was placed over the watercolor image as the new foreground consistent with the other two compositions in the Mounted Canvas “Landscapes” Collection. 

The sky was digitally altered slightly to be more compatible with her mounted canvas series-mates: “Abandoned House” and “Prairie House”. I used a very sparse opacity of a broad airbrush tool as well as light opacity strokes of the conceptual brush to modify a pale turquoise to slightly more cobalt and cerulean blue. 

PROJECT REFLECTIONS: Watercolor tutorials are plentiful on the Internet and of course we benefit when others are willing to share. I have a pet peeve, however: STOP! Too many people are painting with a microscopic little baby tapered brush that seems to have about 20 hairs in it. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan, WHY?!”

TIP: You can achieve exceptionally fine, exquisitely sensitive strokes without EVER picking up a wisp of a brush that runs out of paint immediately a million times over driving one insane. My hardworking go-to brush 90% of the time is the standard Round or Taper brush (I’ve seen it called both interchangeably), at sizes #6 and #8.  

See the fine, pointy-tip at the very ends? THERE’S your mechanism for beautiful, fine work. The bonus is further up the lovely sable bristles (say NO to synthetic! Ugh!) in the barrel of the brush. THIS is where your cursing days end because the reservoir of water and pigment in the barrel will feed evenly into the tip at a consistent rate for far longer than the pointless (get it?) struggle you have trained yourself to be patient with when you use an ant-sized brush that runs dry all the stinkin’ time. 

FACT: Premium red sable bristles are thanks to the Siberian Weasel (or Sable). I assume he donates selective tufts of extra fur now and then for this worthy purpose, of course, in the name of ART. I don’t want to know more than that about that. D:\

(Photo by Dibyendu Ash)

 I can see that you still have doubts. 

(Chipping sparrow with nest in canyon)


This excerpt from one of my watercolor paintings was done entirely with the #6 and #8 Tapered brushes. ALL of it. If you take proper care of your brush (never let it stand head down in water!), you will have that perfect, pointy tip for a couple of months if you are painting regularly. If you have a brush for 6 months - no wonder you can’t get any detail out of it anymore - you killed it! Retire your old brushes with dignity and move on.

And by the way, the thunderheads on the horizon in Elgin, Grand County Utah are harmlessly distant. You can put your umbrella away.


The Difference Between Hot and Cold Press Watercolor Paper - Watercolor Misfit

Best Watercolor Paper: Reviews and buyer's guide - Drawing Fan

Best Watercolor Paper: Top 11 brands to use 2020 - Wow Pencils

*10 Best Watercolor Brushes: Reviews of quality watercolor brush sets - Morning Chores *(This references sets of brushes; you don't need an entire set. Try a 1/2"-1" flat brush as your basic wash brush (a must!); your #6 and #8 Rounds for 80% of your work; and maybe a filbert and/or an angled brush for special occasions. Avoid the tiny detail brushes; I promise you they are not necessary)

How to Use a Kneaded Eraser - WikiHow

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