Learn how to draw thunderhead clouds, and you can draw any kind of cloud.
An integral part of drawing believable skies is getting the clouds right. Whether towering and majestic or thin and wispy, clouds can add sparkle, color, and dimension to even the most basic landscape.
But apart from water, they can also be one of the most difficult and frustrating things to draw. They are ever changing, filled with light and shadow, and capable of going from bright to dark in a matter of moments.
In this drawing mini clinic, we’ll look at a six-step process for drawing thunderhead clouds.
My tools are basic drawing paper, a collection of graphite drawing pencils ranging from 2H to 6B, a Pink Pearl eraser, a click eraser, a bristle brush, and a tortillion.
How to Draw Thunderhead Clouds
Whenever possible, draw from life. Find a comfortable place to sit where you have a clear view of the sky. If the view is somewhat restricted by trees or buildings, that’s okay. It will focus your attention.
If you happen to be in Big Sky country (Montana or anywhere else), find a fixed point of reference like a building, river, telephone pole, or hill and draw that part of the sky.
Sketch the “gesture” of the cloud or clouds by using short, quick lines. Don’t worry about getting every line exactly in the right place. The cloud will look different in a moment or two anyway, so concentrate on the “personality” of the cloud.
I like using straight lines as shown here because they reduce the shapes to the most basic form. This is the foundation upon which the rest of the cloud will be drawn. I used a 2H pencil because it holds a good point for a long time and I can do a large sketch or several small ones quickly without having to stop and resharpen the pencil.
Work the straight edges into curved edges. Since the cloud will likely have changed, pay more attention to the overall “character” of the cloud than the details. Work out the flat, hard edges and embellish wherever necessary.
I continued using the 2H pencil for this stage of work to avoid getting lines too dark to quickly.
Shade the shadowed sides of the cloud beginning with the biggest shapes and working into the smaller shapes. Use a softer pencil. I switched my 2H for an F.
I used a 6B pencil to lay down diagonal strokes through most of the area. On the shaded side of the cloud, I worked over the edges within the cloud. On the sunny side, I added accent shadows. I used light pressure throughout and kept the strokes “open”.
Once all the shadows are shaded, blend each area. Work toward flat values. These are the base for further work.
When I had as much graphite on the paper as I wanted, I used a short, bristle brush and my fingers to smooth out the graphite and soften some of the edges between light and shadow.
The clouds at the bottom are not blended, so you can see the difference made by blending.
Continue to darken the shadows and develop the highlights and middle tones. Remember that even in the shadows, there is reflected light. If you’re working from life, take note of the brighter areas of reflected light and work around them.
The sky will not be the lightest value in a drawing of clouds, so shade a light value into the sky. You can use your fingers or a soft cloth to blend the entire drawing, pulling tone from the darks in the cloud into the sky, as I did with this drawing. Don’t forget the cast shadow from the cloud.
Once you’ve finished, use an eraser to lighten some shadows and to create areas of reflected light. I used a click eraser around the sunlit edges and the flat side of a Pink Pearl eraser within the body of the cloud to lighten some of the shadows.
Push the detail on a drawing as far as you wish. Even for a small study, taking the time to capture a full range of values will help you later, when you add clouds to a painting or drawing.
Oh, and have fun. Drawing clouds can be frustrating, but discovering how to capture the unique personality of each one is truly a satisfying feeling.