This tutorial will attempt to explain how to get realistic (or at least surreal) looking cloud formations in Photoshop 6 (and up to cs version)


No two clouds are alike in is impossible to find symetrical patterns in swirling gases.
Luckily, Photoshop has the means to re-create a natural look.
With the right combination of brushes, selections, filters and layers..anything can be possible.
The key is to learn some technique…then experiment and modify..there is plenty of room for variation.
Also, pay attention to clouds whenever you see them…see how they light affects them..colors..ect.
The brain will register the information if one pays attention…details never noticed before will start appearing..
Kind of like Zen Buddism.

A traditional artist friend of mine once said “I hate the’s like trying to paint with a bar of soap!”
He’s right..the mouse is a lousy paintbrush..a pen tablet would be way better, but if you are constantly
broke (like myself) the mouse will do fine.
The best way I have found to paint with a mouse…is to anchor the wrist, and use short subtle strokes.
Put some pressure on the heel of your hand to restrict movement.
To avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, a mouse pad with a gel wrist rest is recommended..I use one myself and it
is very comforatable, especially during long sessions.


1. Open a new file in Photoshop.
Set it for landscape position, 5×7″, 72 pixels per inch.
The reason the resolution is set this low, is to reduce the load on the computer.
Large files will slow things down, and at this point, we are learning and practising.

The print quality wall posters can come later. 😉

2. In the tool pallete…set the foreground color to dark blue and the background to white.

3. Go to Layers/Create new Layer. Name it cloud1

4. Go to Filter/Render/Clouds..Apply

The result will be as shown in the next image…It looks like clouds..
But is symetrical and formless..nothing like in real nature.

5. Go to Edit/Transform/Scale or Ctrl+T

Drag the bottom of the image upwards as shown in the next image

Then drag the sides out, as shown in the next image

Right click on the image and bring up the transform menu..
Click on Perspective
Drag the bottom corners inwards (next image)
apply the changes

The result will have some depth and perspective but it still looks flat and symetrical.
Time to apply some filters.

The liquify filter has the ability to move the image around as if it were a liquid.
There is a wide choice of tools and brushes that can bend, twist, swirl, squish, billow ect.
There is a world of expermentation in it, but for now, the default brush will do.

6. Go to Filter/Liquify
Move the brush around the edges and inside, using short mouse strokes.
Don’t overdo it. We are just trying to create a subtle impression of movement at this point.
The next image shows a guide to some possible points of manipulation

The result..

The image looks better, but is still flat and ’cartoony’ looking.
Time to add detail

**Importent Note** Just as no two clouds are alike…no two artists are alike.
…dont try to do an exact duplicate. Just try to get close.
Much of this kind of painting comes from the subconscience.
It would be impossible for me to do the same image twice.

7. Select a small area of the image with the ecliptical selection tool

Go to Filter/Distort/Twirl … Move the slider so that the image is only slightly bent…+50 in this case.

Select a few more areas and apply the filter. This can be done quickly by pressing Ctrl+F after making each selection.
(Photoshop holds the filter and its settings in memory untill a different one is applied)
The next image is a composite of some selections, and the results of the filter.

It is looking better…but still not right..still too blobby..needs to be softer.

This is where the motion blur filter comes in.

Notes on the Motion Blur Filter..
The motion blur filter is one of Photoshops workhorse filters. On its own, or in combination with other filters
(especially the Noise filter) it can be used to create wind, rain, grass, stone, metal, wood, to name a few.
And of course..clouds.

8. In the next image, I have made a wide ecliptical selection on the bottom of the image
…notice that half the selected area is white space.
The gases need somewhere to flow.
After making the selection, go to Filter/Blur/Motion blur.
Set the angle slider to -11
Set the distance to 88

The next images show the results.

It flows a bit more now..but there are edges near the last filter application.
We are going to fix that with the Smudge tool


The smudge tool is located on the tool pallete..7th tool down from the top left.
By default, the blur tool will be there
…to get to the smudge tool, click the left mouse button with the arrow
on the blur tool and hold it down..
A flyout menu will appear…select the smudge tool.
It works similer to the liquify filter, but acts more like paint than liquid.
Using photoshops many brushes, it has endless possibilities.

9. The next image shows a guide to areas that could use the smudge brush.

I used a fuzzy edged airbrush..size 30 set at 100%..again using short, subtle movements
This is the result…Just touch things up…dont overdo

More of a gaseous flow now..but detail is needed.
Time for the Ocean Ripple filter

Notes on the Ocean Ripple filter..
This filter replicates moving, splashing water..
It also works great with clouds.

10. The next image is a guide to show where to apply the filter.
I have picked potential ridges in the image.
The idea is to use the lasso selection tool to make small, irregular horizontal selections
in the potential ridge area..

Then go to
Filter/Distort/Ocean Ripple.
Set size to 8
Mgnitude to 4

Apply the Crtl+F keyboard shortcut (mentioned in step 7) after each selection
..hitting it several times sometimes has a good effect.
If it doesn’t work, key in Ctrl+Z to undo it.

This is my result

Now things are starting to look interesting..but still quite ways to go.

Part 1 – Click here!

1. Duplicate it cloud1
The reason we are duplicating the layer, is that the background layer cannot be edited in certain ways, one of them being the inability to apply layer modes and transparencies.(I will explain in a moment)

It is also good to have a copy of the layer, in case things get messed up too much.

On Layer Modes And Transparancies…
In the layers palette, there will be a box on the top left side that reads ’normal’ by default.

Clicking on the right side of the box will bring up the modes menu.

As you can see..there are over 20 settings..lots of variation
An entire tutorial can be written on this one menu, so I will not go into great detail.
However…I will state that layer modes are one of Photoshop’s most powerful weapons.
What they do, is affect how layers reflect against each other…
It is much easier to demonstrate than explain.
The first time I stumbled upon this technique, it blew my mind..I will never be the same again. 😉

To demonstrate…

2. Duplicate cloud1 it cloud2.

3. Click on the word ’normal’ in the layers will highlight in blue.
tap on the ’down’ arrow on the will scroll through the modes.
Notice how different the pic looks in each mode…some of it
will look good…some really bad…some of them will make no difference
Thing is though…some of the ugly looking modes can be made to look great.
If you look on the top right of the palette menu it will have a box that reads ’opacity.
This affects how solid or transparent the layer will be.
Some modes that are horrible at 100% can be really effective at 5%
Multiple layers can be stacked endlessly on top of each other..each set to a different mode and opacity..
The results can be stunning.

For now…set the layer mode to ’overlay’
Set opacity to 79%

You will notice that it has brightened up the image, and added detail.
It does not look so flat and washy anymore.
There is still little variation in color though..and it is a bit too bright.

On Adjustment Layers..

Photoshop has a large selection of adjustments, such as levels, color balance, hue and saturation..and so on.
Although it is possible to add endless adjustments to a single layer..If you make an error along the way,
or want to change something, you may end up messing it up, or having to re-do everything.
Also..the more you mess with the image…the more it degrades
The adjustment layer solves this to a degree.
It is located here..

It allows you to make adjustments on a separate layer that is linked to the master.
It is linked….by holding adjustment instructions. There are no pixels in the layer..
It only affects the pixels of the master layer it is assigned to.
Since it is a separate layer, it can be edited at any time..independent of any other adjustments that have been made.
And because it contains no pixels, it uses up very little computer memory…
It is almost ALWAYS worthwhile to use adjustment opens a world of control.

4.Click on and select the cloud1 layer in the layers palette.
Click on the adjustment layer icon
Click on levels.

A new adjustment layer called ’levels’ will appear, along with the levels adjustment box.

On Levels…
Levels affect the lighting of the image…Again, there is too much detail about it to cover here..
But keep this in mind..
For input levels (the sliders on the top) sliding to the left makes the image lighter..
To the right..darker
For the output levels, it is the opposite
The combinations of the three input and two output sliders are endless…each one has an influence on the overall lighting.
I will not get into the details for now…Experimentation will teach you more than I can.
I set the input levels to 16 0.86 240
Output 7 255

The detail is a bit more highlighted now..with deeper shading and color
The color variation is still too ’blue’ and it lacks definition and fine detail..
more fixing to do.

5. Select cloud1 layer..duplicate it cloud3
Put it in overlay mode again…opacity 44%

Definition has improved

Create a brightness-contrast adjustment layer for cloud3
adjust the contrast slider to +12

more definition now

6. Go to Layers/Flatten image

Time to add a background and color

7. Select the flattened layer (background) …Go to Layers/Duplicate it foreground

8. Click on the eye icon (to the left) of the background layer.

This will make it hidden from view
Select the foreground layer

8. Click on the magic wand tool in the tool bar

Adjust it to the following settings…

Click on the white space at the bottom of the image.
Most of the white will be selected

Press Ctrl+X on the keyboard..
It will delete most of the white space.

Since the cloud image is on and independent layer, we can place layers behind it.
Now we can create a background.

9. Quick and Dirty Starfield..
If you want a really detailed method of creating realistic starfields go to Greg Martin’s
fabulous tutorial at..…star_field.html
We just need a quickly here, since we are in low res and it wont be using up much space,
so try this…

(1.) Go to Layers/Create New Layer…call it stars.
(2.) Go to Edit/Fill..contents Choose black and apply

(3.) The layer should be completely black
(4.) Go to Filter/Noise…
Apply the following settings

(5.) Press Ctrl+T… set the image size to 120%(Horizontal and vertical)

(6.) Press Ctrl+i This will invert the image.

(6.) Go to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp mask..set it to the following

(7.) Press Ctrl+i This will revert the image to normal.

(8.) Go to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp mask..use the same settings as before.
The stars should be brighter and clearer now…but a few too many..

(9). Create an adjustment layer (Brightness/Contrast)
Set brightness to -15 Contrast to +15
This will reduce the points of light.

9. Go to the layers on the cloud layer and drag it above the star layer.
Now the stars are in the background..

But what a mess on the bottom of the clouds…have to make it more natural looking

10. Use the lasso tool to make a selection on the bottom of the clouds.

Apply these settings

Not bad..But draw another selection, and apply the same settings

That’s better…but way more to go…especially with color..
Everything still has an ’unfinished’ look

This is the end of part 2…..Part 3 is already in the process, and there may be a fourth part.
As previously mentioned…I am making this up as I go along…so I am not really sure what the final result will be.

I have been going as carefully as possible, so artists of all levels can understand the process. It makes the tutorials rather large, but that is unavoidable.
I hope you have fun on the ride.

If you want to take a look at some highly experimental art I have dabbled in that include some of these techniques, go to