Art Experiment #1: Watercolor Clouds

Art Experiment #1: Watercolor Clouds

By Sydney Francis

For this week's Stay Inspired article, I thought it would be fun to do a watercolor painting experiment. Please think about this activity as an experiment, which can done in the spirit of freedom to play, practice, and try new things.

Watercolor skills that can be developed from this experiment:

  • Wet on wet technique
  • Mixing complementary colors to make gray
  • Building a value pattern

I am using a picture of summer clouds that I took last weekend, as a reference.  I don't usually paint or draw from my imagination, but rather I paint what I see.  Clouds are an interesting subject for which to learn about light and shadow, as well as texture and shape.  In some ways, watercolor is an ideal medium for which to experiment with cloud imagery-- the transparent paint interacts beautifully on wet paper to express the softness of the clouds.

June 2019 Clouds in Flagstaff, Arizona

The goal I set out for this painting was to use a wet on wet watercolor technique to see if I could create the feeling and texture of these summer clouds. I used 4 colors to paint this painting: Cobalt blue, Cadmium Orange Hue, Cadmium Red Deep Hue, and a touch of Cerulean blue (in the lower portion of the sky).

Value PatternA value pattern is key to creating a pleasing visual path for the eye to follow as it views a composition. The value pattern is the careful choice of arrangement of all the values of a piece of artwork by an artist in order to guide the eye and unify all the objects/figures in the piece. (1) 

Step 1: Getting Ready

materials set up for a basic watercolor painting


  • Watercolor Paper (I use 140 Lb, cold press watercolor paper)
  • Watercolor paints (I use this 30 year old travel set from Windsor Newton which has 12 colors)
  • Brushes (I used 3 brushes for this painting a large angle brush, 1", to put gobbs of water on the paper, a round brush to mix the color, and a #8 filbert brush to make smaller details). 
  • Container of water
  • Mixing tray
  • Painter's tape (optional-- I often use a watercolor block so that I don't have to stretch my paper)
  • Drawing board (optional)

Step 2: Wet your paper

Get your largest brush really wet and juicy!  Apply liberal amounts of water to you paper.  Note to Arizona residents: you need to get your paper really wet, the water evaporates very quickly here.

wet your paper to get ready to add color to your painting

Step 3: Add the background blue sky

Wet your brush with water and then dip it into the blue paint.  You may want to prepare some blue paint to add to your picture.

preparing you blue paint

Using my reference photo I painted in the negative shapes of the sky, using Cobalt blue.  At the base of the painting I used just a touch of Cerulean blue mixed with Cobalt blue to get the slightly turquoisy color of the sky.

In this part of the painting, I encourage you to let the water on your paper do the work.  When you add the blues, allow them to bleed and move around on the paper.  It will give your clouds the feeling of the softness at the edges of the clouds.

blue negative shapes sky in wet on wet watercolor

Step 4: Add the first layer of gray in the clouds

For my painting, I chose to mix complementary colors, in this case orange and blue to make gray.  Complementary colors are ones that are opposites on the color wheel.  The cadmium orange by itself is too yellowy to make a nice gray.  So I added Cadmium Red Dark to make it more of a red-orange. 

mixing complementary colors in watercolor

blue plus orange equals gray

You can use a gray paint pigment if you want.  But I personally like the chromatic grays that result from mixing complementary colors.  For example, you can see the orange and the blue separate a little on the paper, giving your resulting painting a lively quality.

first layer of gray tones

This is the first layer of grays.  I suggest keeping your cloud areas wet as you add this first layer of grays.  Like the blue sky areas, you want to the gray tones to flow around the paper.  Dab the paint onto the paper in the area that you want the darkest grays. The water will leave some areas white.  In total, I did about 3 layers of gray to build up the shadows in the clouds.

Step 5: Layer more transparent gray layers on to your painting

The final step of this painting is to keep layering transparent grays until you get the final painting you want.

adding transparent layers of gray

At one point the grays in my painting were almost black and the orange tones were a little too strong for my taste (see image above).  So on the final layer I went over the cloud shadows with a layer of transparent Cobalt blue (see the final image below).  I wanted to cool the shadows down and take out the overtly orange hues.

Another technique you can use is to get a clean wet brush and lift off some of the paint, if it gets to thick and dark.  You can also add more water to blend the gray areas into the white areas.

wet on wet watercolor clouds by Sydney Francis

Try this art experiment with an attitude of play and practice.  Enjoy experimenting with the wet on wet technique as well as mixing the complementary colors.

Classes and Community Art Activities Coming Soon...

Scott and I are planning on moving into a studio space downtown on July 1st, 2019.  We will be hosting classes, workshops and open studio times.  More details coming soon!

To learn more about classes, workshops, one-on-one lessons from Sydney, click here.


1. “Value Pattern Definition.” Creative Glossary,

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