Three tips for drawing clouds with coloured pencils

Drawing clouds may be one of the most interesting, as well as challenging, parts of landscape drawing. Do it wrong and you end up with clouds that look like floating cotton balls, but get it right and your cloudscapes will take on a whole new life

Consider a sky with wispy clouds against a radiant, orange sunset or the drama of grey storm clouds against a deep cobalt sky. No matter what your landscape comprises, it's clear that the sky needs to work, whether it includes cirrus clouds, cumulus cloud cover or ominous thunderheads.

Layered clouds create an interesting challenge for expert landscape artists, as they are often best depicted by soft watercolour or pastel techniques. But is it possible to do the same thing with the hard tip of a coloured pencil? 

There are techniques you can use to create realistic clouds, ones that compliment your landscape painting. It's all about getting the right combination of colours, tonalities, shapes, and textures, along with the method of application. 

1. Drawing fluffy clouds with coloured pencil and felt!

An example of drawing clouds with coloured pencil

One problem that comes from using pencils is that they draw lines.

Normally, the only time you will see a line in the sky is when a plane leaves a vapour trail. Lines are even less likely to appear in clouds, so applying coloured pencils with traditional shading techniques, such as hatching or cross-hatching, may not be the best approach. 

So how can you resolve this problem? 

You could steal a technique from pen and ink artists, and stipple the surface with tiny pencil dots, so close together that they overlap and cover the surface completely. This could work for drawing clouds, as using multiple colours could create a subtle, muted effect. 

However, there is a faster way to draw clouds

You can add the pigment to your drawing by first transferring it from the pencil to a piece of rough watercolour paper to form a "paintbox" or palette. Use medium-heavy pressure to get a thick layer of pigment to work with. 

Use a piece of white felt, blending stump or cotton swab, to pick up the colour from the watercolour paper palette. Gently wipe the felt onto your drawing to create a thin layer of pigment. Take it slowly. Build up the values and colour gradually, blending the areas so you don't end up with hard edges. You may need to replenish your palette multiple times. 

Don't worry if the colour extends into other areas of your drawing. As you are using light pressure, it will be possible to pick up any stray pigment with a kneaded eraser once you have completed your sky and clouds. If you want to protect the paper next to your sky from any pigment contamination, cover it with a piece of paper or an eraser shield, and then stroke your felt from that onto your cloud drawing each time.

Don't throw your felt away after use. Keep it with your drawing supplies to reuse for future art projects. 

You can also use this technique for distant, grassy fields, but take care not to pick up a piece of felt that you have used for that purpose when working on your sky!

If you are working on a soft paper, such as Stonehenge or Canaletto Liscio, this process can lift the surface slightly by the rubbing action, so more care is necessary. Hot Press watercolour papers like Fabriano have a more resistant surface and are less prone to damage. If the surface starts to lift then you can apply "first aid" by burnishing with a white pencil.


2. Drawing clouds and skies with watercolour pencils

Drawing clouds is quicker if you use water-soluble pencils, such as Derwent Watercolour, or Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles. However, if you plan to use wet media anywhere in a drawing you will want to prepare in advance by choosing a good quality watercolour paper for your artwork.

Papers up to 300gsm in weight will need stretching first to avoid buckling. I wrote a page on stretching watercolour paper that you might like to check out before starting. If you would rather avoid this, pick a heavier paper of at least 425gsm.

As with the last method, you will also require a piece of rough watercolour paper to act as your palette. Scribble Ultramarine or a similar blue pencil onto this to give you plenty of pigment to work with.

Adding watercolour pencil pigment for the blue of the sky

Re-moisten the sky area and let the paper absorb some of the water for a few seconds. 

Dampen your watercolour brush and pick up colour from your palette. Introduce the pigment to the paper, then tilt your drawing board to encourage it to run along the moist surface in the direction you desire. Be prepared for it to choose its own path! You can exert limited control by pushing it where you want it to go with the tip of your brush. 

In Peter's sample, he wanted the blue sky to show between horizontal clouds, so he held the board on its side. 

You can never guarantee the results, so just go with the flow and work with what you get. You can lighten areas later by adding water and soaking up the colour or darken passages by introducing more pigment where it has ended up too pale.

Aim for some variation in colour and value to create a sense of depth. Remember that clouds often have a lighter top surface and shadow shapes at the bottom, so aim for different densities of colour throughout your painting. Clouds also create shadows on the ground below so include those in your painting, especially if it's depicting a beautiful sunny afternoon!

Don't worry if the pigment runs into an area that you were reserving for trees. A little blue under the foliage will add depth to the painting, as in Peter's finished painting shown below.

A finished pencil landscape drawing

Consider also using this technique to create other kinds of lighting effects, such as sunlight or moonlight, in your drawings.

More examples of watercolour pencil skies and clouds

 Below are three further examples of drawing clouds and skies with watercolour pencils.

Examples of drawing clouds with watercolour pencils

3. Drawing clouds and skies with pastel

Mixed media is becoming popular and there are now even more options when it comes to drawing mediums. Pastel pencils come in a wide range of colours and different levels of hardness in order to cover every artistic style. 

Their use is extended by the introduction of Pan Pastels to the market. These are dishes of powdered soft pastel which you can apply to the drawing surface via various tools and sponges. It is possible to work over the top with either pastel pencils or wax-based coloured pencils, although you may wish to use a workable fixative to ensure the pastel layers do not lift, at the same time as providing extra paper tooth for the pencil to grip on to.

The picture below used Pan Pastels for the background, with wax pencil on top. It shows mist in Ilfracombe harbour (UK). 

Although there are no clouds visible in the next landscape drawing of a Lake District farmhouse, Peter used the technique of a base of pastels with coloured pencils on top. 

 I think this is one of my favourite of Peter Weatherill's landscapes. 

Bonus: What is the true colour of the sky?

There is no single answer to this question because the sky comprises many colours, depending on the time of day, the weather and the season. This variation of colour fascinates us.

The dust in the atmosphere affects sky colours, and this bounces back coloured light towards the blue sky. That is why the sky colour changes with the amount of cloud coverage. Artists know this as Aerial Perspective and therefore portray the sky as a deeper blue overhead than at the horizon. 

Look at clouds and skies in real life and maybe take photos to build into your own personal library of images. In the meantime, study those below. 

As you can see, skies come in a range of blues, and clouds come in all colours - especially at sunset (although I have never seen a green one!).

A last word about drawing clouds and skies

Art is all about light. To portray realism the light must be consistent throughout your drawing therefore, think about the position of the light source, i.e. the sun, when adding a cloudy sky to your artwork.

Clouds are not flat, but amateur artists often depict them that way without considering their form. The light can only illuminate the side facing the sun. This means the "back" will be in shadow. Ensure all your clouds have shadows on the same side and that this matches those in the rest of your landscape.


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