3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

A reader asked for advice on how to draw clouds. That’s a pretty big topic, so I decided to share 3 tips for drawing clouds rather than describe specific steps. After all, the basics of layering, shading, and blending are the same for drawing clouds as for drawing any other subject.

If you would like to see a step-by-step tutorial featuring clouds, let me know.

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

As I mentioned above, you can draw clouds using all the same basic skills you use for any other subject. Things like:

  • Start with light pressure and use light pressure for as long as possible
  • Work from light to dark on traditional paper (that’s not as important on sanded paper)
  • Draw smooth color layers

However, there are some tips for drawing clouds that differ from many other subjects. Those are what I’d like to talk about today.

Let me begin by showing you a picture of clouds. We’ll refer back to this image throughout this post.

How to Draw a Sky

The Character of Clouds

Clouds are as varied as we artists are. They come in a variety of shapes, densities, and appearances. Just look at the clouds in the reference photo above.

They’re a cross between massive and wispy. They’re what’s known as cumulus clouds, and they generally have rounded tops and flat bottoms. They give us the chance to practice drawing clouds with more defined edges.

But there are also very thin, wispy clouds that look flat in shape, color, and value. They may look like they’d be easier to draw, but that’s not always true.

There are, of course, different ways to draw the different types of clouds. So my first tip is to think of clouds the same way you might think of drawing a portrait.

What do I mean by that?

Look at the cloud. Consider the overall shape of the cloud, and it’s mass, which will be revealed in the shadowing. Pay attention to the edges.

In other words, look at the character of the cloud, and then focus on drawing the character. If you’re drawing from life (which I’ve done,) it won’t matter how quickly you draw. The cloud will change while you draw it.

The character, however, will probably remain the same. So identifying the character of the cloud is the first step.

Cloud Mass

When I speak of cloud mass, I’m referring to the bulk of the cloud. Cloud mass is determined by the amount of water droplets in the cloud and it’s revealed by the amount of light the cloud obscures.

Thin, wispy clouds are so thin, they let a lot of light through, so there aren’t many shadows on them. Nor do they cast many shadows on nearby clouds. The clouds at Number 1 in the illustration below are quite bright with little or no shadowing. That’s because they have very little mass. The sunlight passes right through them.

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

The bigger clouds on the left (2) have shadows and highlights because they have enough mass to stop the sunlight; or to at least make it dimmer.

Thunderheads like the clouds shown below are so full of moisture that they stop a lot of light. That makes for dramatic light and dark patterns within the cloud. These types of clouds can also cast shadows on nearby clouds, and you can often see the shadow of a cloud against the clear sky.

Start General, Work Toward Details

When you begin drawing your cloud, start with general shapes and work toward details. Personally, I like to outline the basic cloud shapes, and then shade the sky. I do the clouds after the basic sky colors are down, but you don’t have to do that.

When it comes time to shade the clouds, start with light, basic values and gradually darken values. This rule-of-thumb applies to shading color as well as drawing with graphite.

In this sample, the basic colors of the sky are in place, and I’ve started by shading medium gray with light pressure into some of the clouds. You’ll notice that the cloud edges are very soft. Even clouds that look well-defined rarely have really crisp edges, so for a natural look, keep your edges soft.

Also pay close attention to the colors in the clouds. Those shadows are not always gray. On bright days, they also have shades of blue and blue-grays, especially if the shadows are very dark.

The time of day also affects the color of the cloud. Take a look at the thunderhead I showed you a moment ago. There is no white in it because it was late in the day and the sunlight was golden. If you drew this cloud white, it just wouldn’t look right.

Reference Photos

Reference photos are, of course, a huge help. For one thing, they don’t move. For another, you can zoom in on parts of the cloud to see shapes better.

But still use the reference photo only as a guideline. Unless you want to draw hyper-realistic clouds, there’s no need to draw every cloud in the reference photo exactly the same on your paper.

For example, here’s an enhanced version of the line drawing I started with when I drew the clouds at the beginning of this post. Enhanced because I lightly sketched them directly on the paper and used pencils that were just dark enough to see. That would never show up here, so I also made an ink sketch.

How to Draw Clouds in Colored Pencil

You can make a separate line drawing if you want to, but it’s not necessary. That’s one thing I like about drawing clouds and most landscapes. They tend to take on a life of their own as I work, so getting a precise line drawing first isn’t as important.

Those are My Top 3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

There is a lot more to drawing clouds than what I’ve described here. But of you master these three tips, you’ll be well on your way to drawing realistic clouds of any type.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m thinking about a cloud tutorial, so let me know if you’d like to see full-length tutorial on drawing clouds.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!


    1. Gail,

      Wow. That’s not an easy question.

      A lot depends on the individual scene, and on the paper I was using.

      I’ve not done very many scenes like that, so I can only tell you what I think I’d do.

      First, I think I’d start with Pastelmat because that can take a lot of layers and I could alternate autumn colors to get a mottled look.

      Pastelmat would also allow me to dry blend with a bristle brush so I could randomly blend colors together to create hard and soft edges.

      Second, I think I would try to avoid drawing tight detail. Any type of foliage on a tree can be drawn with masses of color and value. That certainly works with autumn colors.

      I would do the same thing with the leaves on the ground, except they would all be flat on the ground.

      I hope that helps, Gail. I guess I need to do an autumn drawing myself. The actual process might be totally different!

      1. Gail Jones

        Thank you, Carrie, am guessing the leaves on the ground could be stippled? If it is a small scene they wouldn’t need a lot of detail, just a suggestion of color, I am guessing.

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