Painting Tutorial – Cirrus Clouds

A side-effect of spending too much time with my ‘head in the clouds’ is that I’ve become pretty good at painting them. This week I’m tackling cirrus clouds and teaching you how to paint just the right amount of wisp.

Since painting ‘Encore’ I’ve had several questions asking about how I painted the clouds. So, I thought it would be a good place to kick off my painting tutorials.

I’m not a cloud enthusiast, so I don’t know all the names. However, I did sit next to a geography student on a plane once and she said they were called cirrus clouds. (Thanks Jess!). I verified this information with an in-depth google search of “What are the wispy clouds called?” and it came up with the same answer. So, cirrus clouds it is.

My impression of these clouds can be seen at the top of ‘Encore’ here.

Encore 30inx30in Acrylic painting on canvas.

I was going to use my process photos of Encore for this tutorial because, like a genius, I always take pictures of my work as it progresses so I can look back at my techniques if I need to. Unfortunately, the genius well ran dry on this occasion so I don’t have photos of painting the clouds…

But all is not lost! For I have painted those same cirrus clouds on my recent ‘Ostinato’ painting. ‘Ostinato’ has since been sold. Do contact me if you would like to commission one for yourself.

Without further ado:

Cirrus clouds: Step-by-step tutorial

It’s important to note that I am using acrylic paints for this. Acrylics dry quickly and don’t re-activate if water is applied to them once they are set. This tutorial is best suited to paints with those properties.

You will need:

  • A sponge
  • An old and dying paint brush
  • A small pointed brush

Step 1

Paint the background first. Cirrus clouds are wispy to they have gaps in them or area which appear transparent where the scene behind it will show through. Therefore, whatever is behind them had to be painted first.

My painting is of a sunset so I used a gradient to show the darkening sky.

Step 2

Soak the sponge in water and then squeeze it out. It needs to be damp enough to have a good slip over the canvas but not dripping wet so that it leaves puddles of excess water.

I use makeup sponges because they absorb less paint, which saves money in the long run.

Dip the wet sponge into the white paint. Then, on another area of the palette, press the sponge into the palette to spread the paint evenly until there is a thin sheen of white over the sponge.Now use quick, light strokes with the sponge to map out the general shape of the clouds.

General shape!

Clouds, unlike figures or objects don’t have exact proportions. So, it’s more important to capture a sense of movement than the exact formation when painting them.

Step 3

Continue using this method to build up the structure of the clouds. Leave the areas of bright highlight for now. The sponge method is just to get the form of the clouds; I have another technique
for the highlights.

Though cirrus clouds are thin by nature, they do have more opaque areas. Refine the sponge strokes from a general sweep of the cloud’s form and concentrate on these thicker areas of cloud. This will layer the paint, giving the appearance of denser areas within the clouds.

The key to painting cirrus clouds is to use thin layers. You want to build up their appearance gradually or you risk making them look heavy enough to fall out of the sky (and no one likes to be squished by a cloud).

Doing this will also help to define the shape of the clouds and capture a sense of movement.

Step 4

Paint the rest of the scene.

The colours and contrast throughout the rest of the painting will determine how strong the cirrus highlights need to be. Cirrus clouds have weak forms so they are rarely going to be the focal point of the painting. This makes them a supporting act used to balance and compliment the main features. However, they can’t compliment something that hasn’t been painted.

I have put in a series of progress photos to show how painting the rest of my scene changed the appearance of the cirrus clouds without touching them at all.

Step 5

Now the rest of the painting is finished, it’s time to assess what to do with the cirrus clouds.

In my case, I’m trying to draw attention to the sunset on the horizon. So, I don’t want anything too powerful at the top of my painting that is going to take away from it. However, ¾ of my painting is sky and at the moment it looks quite empty. Therefore, I need some highlights in the clouds to help the viewer’s eyes to navigate the space.

Step 6

Now is the moment to ditch the sponge and pick up a brush because highlights require precise mark-making.

I used an old round brush when painting ‘Encore’. Old brushes are ideal because the fraying hairs prevent harsh lines and give the clouds a soft, fluffy feel. Unfortunately, this brush was too big to use on ‘Ostinato’ so, I used a small, pointed brush instead.

The exact brush shape isn’t important because we don’t want to see the stroke marks anyway. Be careful if you’re using a square brush though because they can leave marks that make things look boxy.

When using an old brush to add highlights the brush should be 90% dry. Dip the brush into the paint and then rub it onto the palette a little to coat all the hairs and get rid of any large blobs of paint. Then, lightly sweep the brush over the areas of cloud you want to add highlights to.

The frayed hairs should keep the highlights looking soft and the dry brush will stop the paint from being watered down and keep it bright and opaque.

If you are using a newer or pointed brush, then the brush will need to be fully wet to avoid leaving sharp stroke marks in the sky. Mix enough water into the paint to keep it thick but moveable. Try to avoid watering the paint down too much or it will become translucent and less vibrant. But do add more water if it is too tacky.

Paint the highlights on with quick strokes and then use your sponge or a clean, dry brush to swipe over the marks while they are still wet. This will push the paint into the canvas and blur any harsh lines. This method may require 2 or 3 layers to build up the highlights.

If you have any questions or requests for more tutorials, then do leave a comment. You can see more of my week-by-week art process on Instagram @e.r.curtis

I now teach classes on Skillshare as well. You can look me up through ‘Art of Emily Curtis’ or through

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A side-effect of spending too much time with my ‘head in the clouds’ is that I’ve become pretty good at painting them. This week I’m tackling cirrus clouds and teaching you how to paint just the right amount of wisp. Since painting ‘Encore’ I’ve had several questions asking about how I painted the clouds. So, I […]

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