de Youngsters Studio: Cloud Paintings Inspired by Looking at the Sky

By Raphael Noz, Teaching Artist

May 22, 2020

Note: This activity is best suited for children who have hand and material control and want to draw objects with visual accuracy. Before the age of nine, we recommend children draw their ideas and stories without too much intervention for accurate visual description. It is much more important to let them loose with the materials. Even older children will benefit from space to draw their own images from memory — they’ll ask you about the areas of a picture that need refinement according to them.

Have you been watching the sky lately? You might have seen lots of big, puffy clouds, scudding across the sky from your window. Maybe you have been out on a walk after the rain and seen some of these big, cotton-like clouds, which are called cumulus clouds and are the focus of this project. The sky can serve as an endless source of inspiration; this lesson will look at examples from the de Young’s collection and explore painting techniques to capture what you notice. 

There are many pieces at the de Young that really highlight the sky, such as Rockwell Kent’s Afternoon on the Sea, Monhegan (1907). In Kent’s painting, we see a big, open sky on a cold, wintry day. The painting shows us how the sky directly overhead is often a deeper blue than the part of the sky closest to the horizon — or the line where the sky meets the sea.

Another favorite is James Turrell’s Three Gems (2005). This artwork consists of a room that is sunk into the de Young’s sculpture garden. In the ceiling of the space, a big open hole allows us to look up at the sky. Sometimes we can actually glimpse a cloud flying right across our view.


  • Paper. Anything regular to thick, watercolor paper is good
  • Watercolors or gouache
  • Pencil
  • Rag or paper towel
  • Small bowl of water
  • One or two brushes
  • Alternately, crayons or pastels

Questions to consider

  • Look out your window or take a moment on a walk to look up at the sky. What do you notice? How would you describe the clouds? 
  • If your clouds were a person, what kind of person would they be? Sleepy and slow? Big and stormy? Speedy and fast?
  • What kind of cloud would you like to be — tinged with pink from the sunrise?
  • Can you name the types of clouds you see? [Hint: You can look up images of stratus, cirrus, cumulus, stratocumulus, cirrostratus, cirrocumulus, nimbostratus, altostratus, altocumulus clouds]


  1. Draw a horizon line low on the paper. First, let’s give ourselves lots of sky to work with. Clouds are the focus of our picture so let’s give them lots of room.
  2. Draw lines radiating out from one point on the horizon. These lines are going to help us visualize all the space up there, as if that space was reaching all the way back to that point, and coming all the way forward to where the lines go off the paper. Imagine that if we walked into this space, the lines would not touch, but just keep going back and back. But do not draw them too dark as you will erase them later in the process.
  3. Draw cloud shapes, usually flatter on the bottom. Now imagine that the edges of the paper, especially the top edge, is the space closest to you. That is where you will put the biggest clouds — up at the top and even going off the paper. That will make them look especially close. Make the shapes puffier on top, and a little flatter on the bottom. Also, make the clouds smaller as they get to the horizon line, smaller and flatter. Don’t worry too much about the shapes. You can erase them later.
  4. Paint around the clouds. Do this quickly and your painting will look more alive. Don’t worry about the lines you drew for your clouds — you can erase them when the paint dries. Also, you can use your paper towel to scrub and blend the paint. Hint: I like to paint a deep blue at the top of the clouds, and a slightly lighter greenish blue as we get down to the horizon.  
  5. Color in the clouds with soft greys and purples towards the bottom of each cloud. When you color in the bottom part of the cloud, it makes it look less flat, like it has an all-the-way-around shape. Do not paint a color that is too strong or bright; it should be soft and dull. Try your color on a scrap of paper first if you are unsure. Hint: Use less color on the clouds closest to the horizon. As things are farther away, we usually see less of them, less detail and less color.
  6. Add a touch of bright yellow to the tops of each cloud. This will make it look like the sun is setting or shining on your clouds. Alternately, you can add just a touch of pink to give your picture that sunset glow. Again, use less color on your clouds down closer to the horizon.
  7. Erase the radiating lines and cloud outlines if you haven’t done so already. Make sure your paint is dry before you erase. 
  8. Add your landscape or seascape below. Now you can finish your picture by adding in what’s on the bottom. Is it a seascape with water and boats? Is it a view of a meadow and forest? Maybe a city below? Add that in now. And remember, just like above the horizon line, objects get bigger the closer they are to the outside edges of your paper, especially the bottom edge in this case.

After creating your clouds, consider the following questions: 

  • Does looking at your cloud picture make you want to take a big breath of fresh air? I hope so!
  • Were you able to make things get smaller, flatter and less colorful as they get closer to your flat horizon line? 
  • What will you try the next time you paint the sky? In what ways does painting the clouds change the way you look at the sky? 


Perhaps you’d like to make your picture into a card for a friend. You could fold it in half and write something on the inside. I would love to see what your sky and clouds look like, please tag us on any social media platform using the hashtag #deyoungsters.

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