How to Paint Waves & Clouds with Acrylic

by | Nov 16, 2015 | Blog | 10 comments

My head is always in the clouds – literally! The elevation where I live here in Santa Fe, New Mexico is 7200 feet. The vast skies and ever changing cloud formations inspire many of my paintings.


Three ways to paint waves & clouds

Here are my three favorite ways to create cloud painting effects using acrylic paint. I create ocean waves the same way as the clouds, but with some variations. These techniques will also work with oil paint – just substitute solvent for water when diluting the paint.

painting of waves and clouds

Blue Horizon, 20″ x 20″, acrylic on panel

waterscape painting

Hidden Rainbow, 26″ x 34″, acrylic on panel


Technique #1: Combine Glazing with Sanding

This first technique is a great way to create white clouds in a blue sky as well as white wave caps in blue water. /em>

By the way, my DIY course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting includes a video demonstration of this technique, along with lots more tips and details.

Step 1. Start with fluid colors Phthalo Blue (green shade), Prussian Blue and Titanium White. Apply a combination of these three colors, mixed with a slow drying medium (I like to use Golden’s Acrylic Glazing Liquid Gloss) onto your painting surface to create an underpainting. Apply these three colors and medium, in a variety of ways using brushes and knives, and applied in different amounts. The blues will eventually be a base for your sky at the top, and as water at the bottom, or wherever you eventually want clouds or waves. For water, vary the values so the blue has both dark and middle value tones keeping it mostly dark. In other words, keep to a dark blue background overall with this underpainting, which will show off the white waves added later. Let this first blue layer dry.

Step 2. When the first layer has dried, knife apply your slow drying clear medium over the area you want to apply waves or clouds. While the medium is still wet, add Titanium White fluid paint onto your knife, and swipe the white into the medium in swirling motions. While still wet use the knife to scrape back some areas to reveal the blue underpainting showing through in places. Also while wet take a dry flat brush and lightly wipe the white paint into upward lines. Let this second layer dry for a day or more.

Step 3. Using waterproof sandpaper, spray the dry painted surface with water and sand off some of the dried white paint from the previous layer. Respray the sanded area with water and wipe off the excess sanded paint with paper towel.

Step 4. If too white repeat Step 2 using blue paint. Repeat any steps as needed for more blue water, or more white waves.

Blue Curve & Mountain, acrylic & gold leaf on panel, 16″ x 12″


Technique #2: Resist Washes on Glossy Surfaces

Step 1. Apply a base coat of overall blue for a sky, or a variety of dark blues for water.

Step 2. When dry, make your surface glossy by applying a coat of gloss medium over the painted surface. Let dry.

Step 3. Heavily dilute Titanium White paint with water to create a “wash” (60-70% water to any fluid paint color or 90% water for heavy or thick paints). Apply the wash over the glossy surface. Leave it alone to dry. This is the hard part – not playing with it. If you move the wash around too much, or don’t have enough water in your paint, this technique won’t work.

Step 4. When dry the white will puddle up into interesting patterns and shapes, allowing the blue underneath to show through. Repeat the steps using blue paint if needed.

Canyon Landscape, acrylic on panel, 20″ x 20″


Technique #3: Traditional Painting Techniques

Paint clouds and waves using good old classical painting techniques. The historic old master painters had been doing this years ago. Many contemporary painters, myself included, still use these techniques. Technique #2 described above occasionally produces happy accidents, but not always. Uncontrolled techniques such as that won’t always give the desired results.

Traditional painting techniques usually involve applying paint with a knife or brush, while adding mediums to make colors more transparent. By using transparent paint color in layers you can build up with optimal control to obtain the effects you want.

Here are some examples of paintings with clouds and waves, by other artists using classical painting techniques, usually resulting in images that are more detailed and realistic.

Below are two paintings by 19th Century French Master, Gustav Courbet.
This contemporary painting is from
cloudswithhouseAnother contemporary painting from
Traditional painting methods can take hours of mixing color and careful application. I like to use a combination of abstract techniques along with classical ones to add an intriguing contrast.

Video demonstrations of these techniques as well as many more, are included in my DIY acrylic painting course. The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting.

Featured course

complete guide to acrylic painting

Find the magic to bring your visions to life on canvas. From your very first brushstroke to your ultimate masterpiece – this course has it all. Click to read more.


Featured Course

Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting

Find the magic to bring your visions to life on canvas. From your very first brushstroke to your ultimate masterpiece – this course has it all. Click to read more.

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  1. Lucy

    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 !

    • Nancy Reyner

      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.

  2. Alvina Balog

    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.

  3. Wesley Working

    I really love the gradient of color in your paintings. Your pieces are beautiful! Color gradient is something im trying to work on in my own paintings. 🙂

    • Nancy Reyner

      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. Cheryl Playne

    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.

  5. Cheryl Playne

    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


      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.

  6. Sylvia A. Keller

    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

  7. Elsie

    Thanks so much! Very clearly expressed. Will try the addition of gloss medium.


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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner paints exotic versions of heaven, using gold leaf and other unusual materials. A contemporary abstract painter, she feels art is a rewarding pursuit that adds quality of life. Nancy shares this passion with her students & offers classes, articles, books & videos, encouraging the courageous use of materials and artistic expression.

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