How to Paint Lightning

Lightning adds dynamism and drama to landscape painting. However, one must note that to paint lightning convincingly, this involves more than a mere white zigzag. Without sensitive observation, lightning could easily look false.

Painting Thunderstorms
Lightning does not merely affect the portion of sky in which it appears, it affects the whole setting; reflections in clouds, on the ground and the atmospheric conditions. The following pointers might help the artist capture the essence of lightning effectively.
  • Lightning is not merely white, but other colours. Atmospheric dust might give the filaments a reddish or bluish tinge. Several colours might be present in the same lightning
  • Similarly the brightness of the lightning might vary within the same lightning
  • The width of the main trunk will often appear wider than the offshoots
  • Lightning casts reflections upon the surrounding area. Pay particular attention to the undersides of clouds and areas that contain water
  • Lightning provides the ideal opportunity to explore silhouettes, which adds more drama
  • Avoid applying thick paint to the sky around the area of the lightning, for the lightning will need to be painted on top. This will prevent too much of the cloud colour to contaminate the bright colour of the lightning
  • To further emphasise the brightness of the lightning, juxtapose a very dark colour with the lightning. The comparison will be striking.

Art Materials Required

  1. A suitable photograph of lightning
  2. A piece of 16” x 12” (40cm x 30cm) primed hardboard or similar.
  3. Size 3 round sable brush or synthetic substitute.
  4. A 2cm wide bristle brush.
  5. Oil paints in the following colours: Titanium white, pthalo blue, French ultramarine, permanent rose, burnt sienna and cadmium red.
  6. Artists’ quality white spirit.
  7. A soft pencil and rubber.
  8. Acrylic paint in red and blue.
Tips on Painting Lightning
To give the lightning an organic feel, move the paint in the direction of the lightning. Using progressively thinner brushes for the offshoots will help give the lightning structure.
Demonstration on Painting Lightning
A diluted wash of red and blue acrylic paint was applied onto the painting surface to set the tone of the painting. The composition was then sketched out by using a soft pencil. Once dry, the palest area of cloud was applied near the horizon. White, permanent rose and a little ultramarine was used. The same colour was used on the reflections in the sea.
With a stiff brush, daub a mixture of ultramarine, burnt sienna and varying amounts of white onto the darker underbellies of the clouds. A clean sable was then used to knit together the two areas of colour.
This part was pretty straightforward, as no detail could be seen. With ultramarine, permanent rose and burnt sienna, paste onto the palm trees and the rocks in the foreground. The contrast of the silhouettes immediately sets up the drama for the lighting.
Painting Lightning Strokes
Use neat white initially to sketch rudimentary lines of the lightning. Precision is not required, but the general feel of lightning.

If the shape of the lightning is not satisfactory, gently wipe the paint off with a soft rag, dab the sky colour over the area and start again.


Lightning will appear more authentic if other colours are used. Crimsons, violets and blues can often be seen in lightning. The main strokes will often be brighter and therefore white.


The lightning in the background reveals more reddish hues. Repeat the process, but use varying amounts of cadmium red and burnt sienna with the white.
Read more about how to make colours appear bright on my science of colour site.
This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon. © Rachel Shirley 2010