Today I want to show you one way I draw a stormy sky with traditional colored pencil.
The sky sets the tone for landscape art; even in graphite. Get it right, and you have an excellent landscape drawing.
Get it wrong…. Well, lets don’t go there!
Clear skies can be difficult enough, with all those subtle gradations of blue. Add a few clouds and the difficulty increases.
A stormy sky?
The lighting may be dramatic, but is it possible to draw a stormy sky that looks realistic?
I’m using the direct method of drawing for this demonstration.
I’m also using Prismacolor Thick Lead/Soft Core pencils unless otherwise noted. You should be able to match colors in whatever brand of pencil you prefer if you don’t use Prismacolor.
How to Draw a Stormy Sky in Colored Pencil
Laying a Foundation – Slate Grey
I chose Slate Grey for the foundation color because it’s a cool color (as opposed to a warm color.) It also combines gray with a strong blue tint that’s ideal for dark and stormy skies.
Since my reference photo features a brightly lighted foreground, I wanted a cool color against which I can contrast all that bright, warm, foreground light. Your stormy sky might do better with a warm gray. Try a few colors and don’t be afraid to experiment. Just do most of your experimenting on scrap paper first!
Outline objects that overlap the sky, and then fill in around them using the point of a very sharp pencil and light pressure. In the trees in my sample, I used circular strokes and light to medium pressure to fill in the gaps around the edges of the trees and within the foliage. The strokes are so close together, it’s difficult to see them in this detail, but the type of stroke isn’t as important as getting an even layer of color.
The darker areas around this yellow tree are the result of several layers of Slate Grey. The lighter areas (lower right) are fewer layers. The lightest area has no color at all.
TIP: Unless your stormy sky is flat gray, it’s important to begin defining values from the beginning.
Building on the Foundation
In the open sky, use light pressure and horizontal strokes with the side of a well-sharpened pencil. Overlap strokes and use multiple layers to create the lights and dark values that represent breaks in the clouds.
Layer flat color into the trees overlapping the sky. This is the method that works best for me because it gives me a better sense of the landscape than the line drawing.
TIP: Unless the paper is extremely smooth, some texture will appear through the color layers when you use a blunt pencil or the side of the pencil. The lighter the pressure, the more “broken” the resulting color. Make use of the paper texture in the sky, where it helps create the look of clouds with a minimum of work.
Darkening the Sky
Continue layering Slate Grey over the sky, beginning with a sharp pencil and light to medium pressure to work around and within the trees. Outline the outside edges, and the edges of the “sky holes” before filling in the shapes.
At this stage, you can continue working even after the pencil becomes blunt. The broader tip of a blunt pencil covers paper more quickly. It also lets the texture of the paper influence the color. As the pencil grows more blunt, increase pressure slightly to medium pressure.
You can also alternate between horizontal strokes (visible on the right) and vertical strokes (on the left). I layered with horizontal strokes first, then added a layer of vertical strokes, but the order doesn’t matter.
The type of strokes you use is not as important as getting the look you want. Use whatever strokes work best for you and the type of paper you use.
In the illustration below, you can see the outline on the right and the filled in areas on the left.
TIP: Continue developing variations in light and dark values established in the first step. Although you darken the entire sky, there will still be light and dark areas when you finish.
Add Dark Umber
To get an even darker sky, add a dark brown. I like Dark Umber because it’s more neutral than Dark Brown. I also like browns because they create nice, natural looking dark values when mixed with dark blues, dark greens, or dark reds.
Using a sharp pencil and light to medium light pressure, outline the trees overlapping the sky, including the sky holes within each tree with Dark Umber. You may outline the horizon, but don’t have to. That edge should be soft and blurry.
Then layer Dark Umber over the darkest areas of the sky, keeping the pencil as sharp as possible. Around the trees, use directional strokes. In the open sky, alternate between horizontal, vertical, and cross hatching strokes to get the most even coverage possible.
Add more layers for darker values. I actually worked around some of the lightest areas so the cool, blue-gray color wasn’t muted by the brown.
Once again, use a sharp pencil and medium pressure to outline overlapping objects. Then use medium to medium-heavy pressure to lay down color. Vary strokes and layers to continue developing variations in value and color.
Slate Grey & Cool Grey Medium
Continue layering color with sharp pencils and a variety of strokes to add more Slate Grey and Cool Grey.
Then burnish the darkest darks with Cool Grey and the slightly lighter areas with Slate Grey using blunt pencils and overlapping the colors. It may take couple of rounds of burnishing to completely cover the paper in the areas where you want intense dark, such as the left part of the sky and the upper sky.
In this detail, the top portion has been blended with both colors. The lighter, rounded area between the trees still needs to be done and the dark streak through the middle is a single, heavy application of Cool Grey Medium.
Clay Rose & Rosy Beige Accents
The light spots on the horizon have a pinkish tone compared to the darker sky. Layer Clay Rose with medium heavy pressure at the horizon in each place, then follow up with Rosy Beige applied over the Clay Rose and between the Clay Rose and the clouds.
Burnish with White
Burnishing with White is the final step. This step is optional. You can burnish with a light gray or you can skip burnishing altogether, depending on the result you prefer.
This illustration shows that area near the center of the drawing after it was burnished with White.
There is another left of the yellow tree, visible as soft, light color in the illustration below.
Once you finish burnishing, let the drawing—and possibly your hand—rest for a while. I usually allow drawing to sit for 24 hours before a final review. Sometimes, I find they are finished when I look at them again.
Sometimes there’s more to do.
I went over this drawing one final time, adjusting color and value to the get right look.
If I were to finish the rest of the landscape, I’d go over the entire composition once more and make any additional adjustments that seem necessary after finishing the landscape.
Once you understand how to draw a stormy sky, you should be able to draw any kind of sky, from a clear blue sky to dark and stormy and everything in between.
I would like to see how you finished the trees, as they would appear in the stormy sky background. I wonder what colors I would use to make them a part of the night.
Thank you. By the way, I really appreciate your detailed descriptions in your blog. Thank you.
Thank you for reading and for commenting.
The piece I did for the stormy sky tutorial was only to show how to draw a stormy sky. It wasn’t finished.
But I will definitely add your request to the my list of future tutorials. Thank you!
This was very helpful, especially now when everyone is creating Halloween cards. We need this sky for the effect. Thanks for all your tips.
This was very clear and inspirational!
Thank you, Pauline. I love stormy skies, especially when the foreground is brightly lighted.