Do you know how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil?
Think carefully. There’s more to it than picking a nice blue and putting it on paper.
Don’t believe me?
Take a look at your box of pencils. Unless you have a small set of pencils, you probably have at least half a dozen shades of blue. Which one is the right one?
And you can’t pick one or two colors that work with every landscape drawing. Not all clear blue skies are the same shade of blue, after all. The color you see on any given day is determined by altitude, the moisture and heat in the air, and the time of year.
A winter sky doesn’t look the same as a summer sky.
Nor does a clear sky in the desert look the same as a clear sky in the mountains.
You can’t trust photographs, either. Not unless you took them yourself. Why? Because photographers—the serious ones—love filters and special lenses. Some of those lenses and filters enhance color and make a rather plain blue sky absolutely luscious.
So just how do you draw a clear blue sky in colored pencil?
General Tips on How to Draw a Clear Blue Sky
Lets begin with a few general tips that work no matter what type of blue sky—or any clear sky—you might be drawing. I’m using blues for the following illustrations, but the techniques will work for night skies and sunsets or sunrises, as well.
If You Have a Small Patch of Sky to Draw
If you’re drawing a very small section of sky—a bit of blue peaking through the trees, for example—or if you’re drawing is quite small, consider using a cotton swab or cotton ball to apply color. The result is smooth, very thin color with absolutely no pencil strokes.
The process is simple. Begin by using very heavy pressure to apply the colors you want to use to a piece of scrap paper.
Stroke the cotton swab or cotton ball across the color swatches to pick up color.
Next, stroke your drawing with the cotton swab or cotton ball with light to medium pressure.
Continue adding layers until the sky is the color and value you want. “Recharge” the cotton swab or cotton ball frequently by rubbing it against the color swatches.
If you want a clear sky with no variations, continue to layer color over every inch of the sky patch, and then blend with the cotton swab or cotton ball until the color is saturated and looks the way you want it to look.
I described the process more fully in Add Color to a Colored Pencil Drawing with Bath Tissue. The process is the same—but more precise—if you replace the bath tissue with cotton swabs or cotton balls.
If You Have a Large Sky Area to Draw
With larger areas of sky, the best method is drawing with your pencils.
Layer multiple colors with very light pressure. If you have difficulty drawing with light pressure, hold the pencil as close to the end as you can, and hold it so it’s nearly horizontal. Stroke lightly, with little or no pressure on the pencil. Let the weight of the pencil work for you.
Use the side of a well-sharpened pencil or a woodless pencil to cover larger areas.
Work in circular strokes to avoid the darker areas at the beginning and end of “back-and-forth” strokes.
Always make the sky slightly darker toward the top of your drawing and lighter at the horizon.
Optional: Blend between layers with a tissue or cotton ball to even out color and preserve paper tooth.
How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil
Let me show you step by step how I draw a clear sky. Here’s my reference photo.
Choosing the Right Colors
The first thing I do is compare the reference image with my collection of blue pencils. My preferred sky colors are Light Cerulean*, Non Photo Blue(, Powder Blue, Sky Blue Light*, and True Blue, but I could see immediately that none of those colors were a good fit for the shades of blue in this summer-time sky. I’d have to do some blending.
TIP: Having trouble seeing the colors in your reference photo? If it’s a digital image, open it in Photoshop or whatever software you use for photos. Use the color picker and click on the area you want to draw. The color in that area will be displayed isolated from all the other colors and will give you a much clearer idea of the true color. Match your colored pencils to that color.
The lightest blue actually leans toward green. The closest color in my collection proved to be Light Aqua*, a color I rarely use for drawing skies.
The lower sky is lighter than the rest, so I also selected a similar color in a lighter value. I selected three lighter colors, so I made three color swatches with Light Aqua. Then I layered each lighter color over a color swatch, as shown below. It was easy to see that Sky Blue Light and Light Aqua provided the best combination.
The Initial Layers
I outlined the trees with Light Aqua and light pressure. Whenever I draw background elements first, I outline any shapes that overlap it. All you need is a line that’s dark enough to show where the sky ends.
Next, I began filling in the sky with light pressure and careful, closely spaced strokes. Because the end goal is even color with no visible strokes, I combined circular strokes with diagonal strokes and concentrated on a small area.
I always use very light pressure when beginning to draw skies (or almost anything else). Darkness and saturation are developed layer by layer. The topmost part of the patch of color shown below is the result of one or two layers of color. The more saturated area at the bottom is five or six layers, all applied with light pressure and a sharp pencil.
TIP: In the illustration above, my pencil should be sharper. I’ve worn down one side of it and simply turned it so I was drawing with the resulting sharp “edge.” But I’m sometimes a lazy artist, and didn’t sharpen the pencil instead. Laziness usually leads to more work.
Here’s what the area looked like when I finished layering Light Aqua. Note the outlined trees on either side of the shaded color.
I next layered Sky Blue Light over the lower portion with medium heavy pressure, both to smooth out the layer of Light Aqua and fill in the tooth of the paper.
There’s a warm cast to the lower sky, so I burnished with Cream in a small area at the bottom, and followed up by burnishing White into most of the same area to lighten it a little more.
Keep color and value transitions soft and smooth. Color and value should change so gradually that there are no edges anywhere. Whether you work from one part of the sky to the next or cover all of the sky with every layer, be deliberate in how you apply color. When you find yourself getting sloppy or “just scribbling”, stop. Those scribbles will be difficult to cover so it’s better to take a break.
Once the initial color is on the paper, continue building upward. Work with light pressure and multiple layers. If necessary, “weave” different shades of blue in with the original colors, layer by layer.
It’s important to remember that a well-drawn sky will be heavily saturated with color: There should be no paper holes at all if the sky you’re drawing is clear.
When I stopped to take this photograph, I estimated I was one-third to one-half finished.
As the sky progresses, I add new colors as well as more layers. The previous image shows True Blue at the top and Light Cerulean Blue throughout the sky from the top nearly to the bottom.
I also added a light layer or two of Ultramarine at the top in the following illustration.
But I continued using the lightest pressure possible. Since I was drawing on Bristol Vellum, I had to increase the pressure slightly to apply these layers. But I still did not use any more pressure than absolutely necessary.
A few more layers of True Blue, Non-Photo Blue, and Sky Blue Light.
Every layer was applied with light pressure and careful strokes to cover as much of the paper as possible. I have started increasing pressure a little toward the top, where the color will be the darkest, but I won’t use heavy pressure until the end, when I burnish the sky.
Even so, you can see the difference a few additional layers of color make even if they are applied with light pressure. The point? Don’t burnish too soon!
Rather than use a colorless blender for burnishing, I used the same colors I used to color the sky.
When I burnished, I burnished from the top down with Non-Photo Blue, and from the bottom up with Sky Blue Light. Most of the strokes were horizontal and I blended the two colors together as much as possible for smooth transitions.
And that’s how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil. At least that’s the way I do it.
There are variations on this theme and much of what I’ve shown you here is determined by paper color and other factors. If you begin with a blue paper, for example, there would be a lot less layering involved.
The type of paper (I used Bristol vellum) and pencils (I used Prismacolor) would also determine how you might need to change how you draw. Bristol vellum doesn’t usually take as many layers to cover because it’s so smooth. Stonehenge, on the other hand, will take more layers to produce the same level of color saturation.
Final Notes on Drawing a Clear Sky with Colored Pencils
I first wrote this tutorial before I was fully aware of the lightfast qualities of the colors I used. Since then, I’ve removed many Prismacolor colors from regular use. I no longer recommend those marked with an asterisk (Light Cerulean, Non Photo Blue, Powder Blue, Sky Blue Light, or Light Aqua.) I have replaced those colors with other colors from other brands, most notably Faber-Castell Polychromos.
Also, you may have noticed that I didn’t do the entire sky in my examples above. The reason is simple. I started out with Bristol Vellum, but changed my mind after just a few layers. The paper worked very well for this mini-tutorial, but I didn’t want to do a full drawing on it.
Papers of choice now are Canson Mi-Teintes or a sanded paper of some type. When or if I revisit this particular project, I will do my best to provide another tutorial on drawing a clear sky.
Now that you know the basics of how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil, you can conduct your own experiments to see what works for you.
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