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Painting skies in watercolour by Rowland Hilder

Posted on Thu 08 Nov 2018

Painting skies in watercolour

Rowland Hilder, President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, gives some invaluable help on handling skies, and illustrates it with his own paintings.

The painting of skies makes an ideal exercise for developing certain facets of the watercolour medium.  With this subject you are not unduly worried with problems like drawing or perspective, so you are free to concentrate on such problems as finding the correct sequence of washes, the tone and colour key, the simplification of patterns and the quality of the washes.

As skies are seldom static, you can begin to feel free from the topographical aspect of painting.  Select the essential features of the subject and simplify.  In this way, you will begin to develop a freedom of style.  Moreover, it is relatively easy to find a sky to paint at almost any time of the year, simply by looking out of the window.

Gouache sketch on unstretched cream paper.  First a flat wash of colour was painted over the whole area, leaving the light areas as plain cream paper.  The colour was mixed using body colour white, lamp black, indigo and a touch of crimson.  Deeper tones of the same mixture were painted into the initial wash while still wet.  The soft, lighter areas were obtained by sponging out.  The hill, foreground and a few touches to the sky were added when dry.

When painting a sky in watercolour, you will be very much concerned with the problem of applying your washes in the correct sequence. 

First you should aim to see the sky in your mind’s eye as a series of patterns of tone and colour.  Since it is almost impossible to join two washes at a given line without either over-lapping or leaving a gap, it is essential to plan the painting to ensure correct underpainting procedure.

Watercolour and gouache on blue grey paper.  The scene was begun in very much the same way as the previous sketch, but developed further by the use of additional body colour greys.  Body colour was used for the lighter side of the clouds, and solid white was brushed on to simulate the sunlight on the water.  Black, sepia and grey were used for the foreground tones.  Winsor blue and white for the clear areas of the sky.  The effect of the sun’s rays and the effect of mist were obtained by using transparent washes of body colour white plus a little yellow ochre.

When planning, for example, do not feel that you have to copy every kind of ragged cloud edge.  Try to understand the simple basic principles and paint the essential features.  Don’t embark on the finished watercolour until you have a clear idea of how it should look and how each phase of the work should be rendered.  Don’t feel bound to persevere with a watercolour that has clearly gone wrong.  Don’t hesitate to abandon it and make a fresh start.  The development of a new principle is more important than the value of an individual sketch.

Watercolour and gouache on blue tinted paper.  This sketch was begun by painting in the shadow side of the clouds directly in paynes grey plus a little crimson.  Darker tones of cloud were added when dry.  I used grey with a touch of sepia for the land, and black for the near foreground.  The light side of the clouds was finally added in body colour white plus a touch of crimson and yellow ochre.

Finally, don’t have a conscience about using body colour or sponging out or using any other device that will help you to achieve the result you want.

One of the greatest difficulties in watercolour has always been the white areas.  To achieve a pure white you normally only have to leave the paper blank and paint round the space.  With a complicated subject, this can become almost impossible.  To overcome these difficulties, painters have tried to find a material that will resist the watercolour wash.

This problem can now be solved by using the rubber solution masking medium.  It is now generally available at art suppliers, and has two main advantages over other methods.  First, as the medium is tinted you can see where you have painted it.  Second, the rubber can be easily removed when dry.


The black represents masking medium:  shows areas to be left white.

Let us imagine that you have stretched your paper and made an initial line drawing using, say a brush and Indian ink.  You must now decide on your areas of white, which should be painted with masking medium.  You must then wait for the medium to dry.  Apply the first wash of colour, say a background grey, over the whole surface of the paper, brushing fearlessly, straight over the masking medium.  When you have finished the painting and it is quite dry, remove the masking medium simply by rubbing it with the finger.  You will find that it will peel away quite easily.

Colours are washed in:  masking medium still in place.

The masking medium is removed showing white areas.

A word of warning about brushes; having used a brush in the medium, immerse it at once in water and wash out later in warm soapy water, gently rubbing the hairs with the fingers to remove all traces of rubber solution.  If you find that some of the rubber is still sticking to the brush, you can remove it with a little lighter fuel.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Watercolour and paste

Watercolour offers many possibilities for experiment.  The technique used in the sketch below is a revival of a style of watercolour painting developed in the last century and used by John Sell Cotman in his later works.  The watercolour is simply mixed with a common adhesive flour and water paste, and brushed on with a stiff brush.  The ordinary hoghair brush normally used for oils will serve admirably.  Once applied, the mixture can be worked about until the desired effect is obtained – or until the paste finally dries.

Watercolour mixed with paste and brushed on

The method gives an effective transparent effect that shows the method of application, such as a wiped effect or the actual strokes of the brush.  A relatively flat area of the medium can be applied by wiping with a soft rag or sponge, and by contrast, a stiff brush can be used as in the sketch above, to give the feeling of texture – the brisk direct strokes aim at simulating rough roof tiles.  When wet, the mixture can be removed effectively from the paper with the finger, or if a fine white line is required, the reverse end of a brush will serve.  If common paste is not readily available, then one of the new wallpaper pastes will work equally well.

Watercolour on process paper

Watercolour painted on glossy paper

The picture above was painted on an extremely glossy chromecoat.  If you work in this way, you will find that you can slide the wet watercolour pigment over the surface of the paper even more readily than with the watercolour and paste method.  The medium is in fact very flexible and responsive to alteration, adjustment and development, and as the results have a novel quality, the method is at present favoured by many of the more ‘modern’ exponents of watercolour, whose paintings often border on the abstract.  Surprising and unexpected results can be obtained simply by pushing the wet paint about over the surface of the paper, by subsequent combing, wiping and brushing, and by the addition and removal of colour.  The uneven, broken, colour quality of the paint, when treated in this way, gives the work a contemporary look.

Click here to read part 1 of an article by Rowland Hilder on the Qualities of the Watercolour Medium

Click here to read part 2 of an article by Rowland Hilder on the Qualities of the Watercolour Medium

Click here to read the concluding part of Rowland Hilder's article on Qualities of the Watercolour Medium

This article is taken from the Autumn 1967 edition of Leisure Painter


Painting skies in watercolour by Rowland Hilder


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  • Love using lighter fuel to clean masking fluid from a brush. Try writing that in a book nowadays.😂

    Posted by Brian Parnell on Fri 16 Nov 14:10:12