Nancy’s Painting Blog

Painting Waves and Clouds

Waves and clouds are frequently included in my paintings. Here are some details of them, cropped from my work:
unnamedThere are two methods I use to get wave or cloud effects.

The first method uses washes on a glossy surface and is from p. 99 of my book Acrylic Illuminations.

(1) Make your surface glossy. Simply apply a coat of gloss medium over your painting when you are ready to add cloud or wave effects. If you are just starting with a blank canvas, first apply a paint color then the gloss medium. In my book example I started by painting the canvas a rich black color under the gloss. (2) When dry, apply a wash (60-70% water to any paint color using fluid paints, or 90% water if using heavy or thick paints) over the gloss, and (very important!!!) do not play with it – just leave it alone to dry. If you move the wash around too much it won’t work. When dry it should have puddled up into some interesting patterns and shapes. Most problems with this technique occur when not enough water is used. The wash should move around in a puddle when you apply it, and should stay puddled while it dries.

The second method to get wave and cloud effects is to paint them using good old classical painting techniques with paint on a brush. The old masters have been doing this for years. Most of my waves are painted this way, as the wash technique described above produces happy accidents sometimes, but uncontrolled effects such as these don’t work other times.

There is a myth that abstract painters can’t paint, or that traditional painting techniques are unnecessary to paint abstraction well. I do believe it is my classical painting skills I learned in art school, in workshops and through many years of practice that are key in getting my abstract paintings to work. I have dedicated most of my recent years using acrylic, exploring ways to invent new tricks and techniques for  unusual contemporary painting effects. These tricks are fully shared in my books and videos. I have not included traditional painting techniques in these instructional tools because those are already being taught. I figured I didn’t have to repeat it. I recently checked the internet and found many good instructional videos for traditional painting. We are fortunate to be living in a time where abundant instruction is free and easily accessible.

The waves and clouds I paint, compared to others I found online, tend to be softer because I blend them more, and with greater transparency because I add more mediums to increase their transparency. Both blending and transparent applications such as glazing are in all my books and most of my videos because they are essential painting techniques.

I like to make sure I use a combination of abstract tricks (like pouring) along with classical painting techniques in my work. That is one of the things, I think, that helps make the work intriguing. The waves and clouds, however, are painted traditionally. No tricks. No pouring, no hair dryer pushing the paint, no combs – (these are other suggestions from folks who emailed me asking how I paint them.) Just hours of mixing color and carefully applying the waves.

I attached a few paintings from other painters I found online using traditional techniques for waves and clouds.

These are from 19th Century French master Gustav Courbet.

10 thoughts on “Painting Waves and Clouds

  1. Dear Nancy,
    Only last week did I discover your online videos and immediately ordered your book on Acrylic Illuminations as well as your DVD. Your wonderful abstract creations gave me new inspirations on working with my traditional gold leaf panels. I am a landscape painter and have been using gold leaf for my background for many years. In my opinion oil paints applied on gold leaf tend to go on easier then acrylics since they do not require mediums to be workable. Love the way you use a textured background under the gold leaf and the exquisite fluffy clouds in your work. Thank you so much for your precise instructions, I will try out all your techniques and hope to succeed with using acrylic paints.
    Sylvia Keller

  2. Hi Nancy,

    After too many years of letting my own art lie dormant I have in recent years returned to painting again and love all the new paints and mediums available today. I am an abstract artist working almost exclusively in acrylics. My passion is abstract art with lots of texture. I have been watching tutorials and reading blogs to pick up tips and tricks and find yours to be so helpful and clear.

    I do have a question which I do not seem to have been able to get a clear answer to but, with your experience and knowledge of acrylic products, I am sure you can give me. I love to do washes and glazes but some artists warn that if you dilute acrylic paints too much with water it breaks the bond between the particles that hold it together and the paint will flake off the painting after a while. I have not had it happen to me yet but then have only been painting for the past 4 or 5 years and have only just started to sell them. I use mostly Golden fluid acrylics for washes and glazes.

    Hoping you can help me and thanks again for sharing your knowledge and skills so freely

    Kind Regards

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      That is an interesting question. I like to differentiate between the word “washes” and the word “glazes”. Washes are created by heavily diluting acrylic paint with water. Glazes are created by heavily extending acrylic paint with clear mediums. Both methods make the color more transparent. The paint sinks into the surface with washes, while the paint sits on top as a layer using glazes. You are correct that washes (diluting the paint with alot of water – maybe even 80% water to 20% paint) will break the bond between particle and binder. However, this will not create any harmful effects such as paint flaking off. The paint in a wash may be a bit more delicate though, so it’s best to apply a wash over an absorbent surface, like paper, or an absorbent paste, which will hold the paint to the surface better. If applying a wash over a non-absorbent or glossy surface, then apply a sealing coat or varnish over that layer, or over the entire painting when the painting is complete. This will make sure that even delicate layers will not flake. I use washes all the time on almost all my surfaces, and have not experienced any problems. If you are using a cheap or student grade acrylic paint, then you may experience issues with the paint in any form, wash or not. If you are using a cheap or student grade surface, such as commercially gessoed surfaces, you may also experience paint flaking issues too. In fact, most adhesion issues, such as flaking, are due to an insufficient bond between the first layer of paint, and the cheap quality gesso used with commercially gessoed surfaces. In conclusion, when using fine art grade materials, you will rarely have any issues, including the use of washes. Hope this helps answer your questions.

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for your very thorough and comprehensive reply and I now feel re-assured that my paintings will last the distance. I don’t use cheap or student grade acrylics or cheap canvases (unless I am just practising a technique in the studio). Up till now I have used artist-grade pre-gessoed canvases purchased from the art store but always do at least 2 coats of good quality gesso before I paint. And I always do a varnish top coat (usually 2) so I think I have it pretty well sorted. I am now trying to buy top quality canvases as they come on special as you can feel the difference.

    I am also pleased that I can continue to dilute my fluid acrylics with water as I love the effects. Another person on You-Tube said it was a huge no-no to dilute with water and you must always dilute with a medium like airbrush medium but as you say, it is the difference between a wash and a glaze and didn’t give me the result I was after.

    Thanks again for your help.

    1. Thank you! I do enjoy color blending, or gradients as you said. When blending one area I use several brushes. One to apply one color, another for the second color, then a dry clean flat smooth one to blend the two colors where they meet. I demonstrate this on one of my new videos Creative Color, but you may not need the video, just practice. One more tip: avoid adding water to the paint when blending, even on your brush. The water puddles up the paint so you can’t blend it as easily.

  4. Dear Nancy; Best on line instructions and videos I have ever experienced. Bought a video and book as a result and plan to purchase more. Keep up the wonderful help you have given us.

  5. Dear Nancy.
    I love your clouds and waves! May I know whether any of your DVD demonstrates from start to the finish on one of your lovely paintings? Would like to learnt to paint like you. I bought your book on Acrylic illuminations but can’t seem to see the step by step in achieving the same effect as your paintings. I have just started painting so might be slow in picking up . Would appreciate if there’s a video on one of your paintings. Please let me know which DVD has it so that I can purchase it. I would gladly like to take one of your classes but alas I’m living in Asia !

    1. Dear Lucy,
      This blog article entitled “Painting Waves and Clouds”, describes two methods to obtain the effects in my paintings. I use a classic painting method because it gives me more control, which uses color mixing, applying them with a brush, and adding mediums for transparency. My book Acrylic Illuminations offers many luminous painting techniques. My clouds and waves are not particularly luminous and so are not included. I did mention in the blog article that page 99 of that book does illustrate one possible shortcut method, but I think nothing beats good old fashioned traditional painting. Unfortunately I do not have a video on how I paint traditionally, as there are probably hundreds of those online. Instead I like to create videos that may offer something different. My Secret Tricks to Pouring does have demonstrations on the coated pours in Acrylic Illuminations. I think the “dirty pour” technique, using white paint in a good pouring medium, would give some similar cloud and wave effects. I also recommend my video “Perfect Color Mixing”. In that video I pre-mix several varieties of “whites” and this is the palette I use to paint my waves and clouds. I hope this helps you with your painting. Thank you for your inquiry.

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