Today’s tutorial is another sky tutorial. This time, I’ll show you how to draw a gray sky with colored pencils.
This tutorial is a continuation of last week’s post on sketching a composition right on your drawing paper.
How to Draw a Gray Sky
The demonstration piece is a 6×8 inch landscape drawn on sanded art paper. If you want to try your hand at a gray sky, but don’t have sanded paper, use the same basic process with any drawing paper.
I’m using Faber-Castell Polychromos, but any brand will have enough grays and other colors to draw a gray sky.
This is my reference photo. It’s one of my own, so you’re welcome to download it if you want to follow along with your own drawing.
Step 1: Choose the colors that match the colors in your reference photo.
The first step is always figuring out the best colors for your subject. You can do this a number of ways.
Most artists simply “eyeball” their reference and select the most likely colors to use. For example, to draw a blue sky, they grab a handful of blues in a variety of values and start testing them on paper. That’s a perfectly acceptable way to select colors, and it’s a great way to learn what doesn’t work. I choose colors this way for years.
Most photo editing programs include color picking tools (look for the eye dropper icon in the tool box.) Select that tool, then click on any area in a digital reference photo to isolate the color in the tool bar. Find the colored pencil that’s closest to that color (or the colors needed to mix that color,) and you’re good to go.
A third way to select colors is to physically compare the pencils with your subject, as I did for the illustration below. I chose the three pencils I thought were close to the color of the sky and laid them on the reference photo. Obviously, this works only if you have a printed reference photo, but it is a good way to actually see pencil colors and photo colors side-by-side.
TIP: You may have to blend a couple of colors to get an exact match, or you may choose to use a color you have and draw a slightly different color of gray than the reference photo shows. Either method is fine. Reference photos are only places to begin. You don’t need to follow them exactly (unless you’re doing a portrait.)
Step 2: Layer the base color over all of the sky.
Layer the base color (the color that’s closest to all of the grays in the sky) along the horizon using medium pressure and diagonal strokes. I outlined a portion of the horizon, then shaded the color along it. You don’t have to outline first.
Here, the sky is about half finished. The individual “rows” of color are clearly visible. You can also see the direction of the strokes I used. It doesn’t matter so much what type of stroke you use, so use the stroke or strokes that are most comfortable for you and do what you want to do.
Work across the lower part of the sky, then layer color across the middle part, and finish with the top.
Drawing on sanded art paper produces more than just stunning results. It produces pigment dust, as shown below. It can be a nuisance if you happen to rest your hand in it, then smudge it into another part of the drawing (that’s why I recommend using a cover sheet even with small drawings.)
But pigment dust is easy enough to dispose of. Use a drafting brush and careful brush it into the waste basket.
There is, however, a better use for pigment dust.
Step 3: Use a stiff brush to dry blend pigment dust into the layer of color.
Colored pencil dust can be blended into the color layers, whether you blend wet or dry. All you need is a stiff bristle brush.
You can use a new brush if you wish, but if you have a couple that are worn down from painting, they work best. Just make sure they’re absolutely clean and completely dry.
These are the brushes I use. The top brush is for solvent blending, the bottom brush is for dry blending.
They’re both former oil painting brushes, so the bristles are worn quite short. Short enough for me to use them almost like pencils, with either light pressure or heavier pressure.
The bristles don’t bend, either, so I can use the long edge for larger areas or the corner for small areas.
TIP: If you’re not an oil painter and don’t have used brushes lying around, look for short bristled brushes when you go brush shopping. If the bristles are still long, trim the bristles with a scissor or “wear them down” by stroking them along coarse sand paper. They will, of course, wear down naturally as you use them for blending.
Finish layering gray over all of the sky, then blend with a bristle brush. I generally blend in the same direction in which I applied the color, but use the stroke that works best for you. Blend with light to medium-light pressure to avoid creating “bald” spots in the color layer.
Step 4: Continue layering and blending until the paper is covered.
Continue to layer color and blend until the sky looks as saturated as you want it . Use a combination of strokes and increase the pressure with each layer.
Don’t worry if you can still see variations in the color after all of this. Sanded paper takes a lot of color, so it will take time to fill in all of the tooth.
In this illustration, I’ve blended the first round of color and layered the next ones and I can still see some of the diagonals. I have to remind myself that this is the nature of the paper, and unless I want to burnish the colors, I won’t be able to fill in the paper.
Step 5: Add an accent color if you want to break up the flat gray.
I decided after finishing the sky to add warmer, lighter values near the horizon, to add more interest. The two lightest value grays in the Polychromos line were already on the paper, so I added Ivory, and small, circular strokes along the horizon.
This is what I consider an “enhancement,” so you don’t have to add Ivory if you prefer not to. Even with the first application, however, it gave a little more depth to the sky.
And that’s all there is to it. The landscape I’m drawing shows a very flat, light gray sky. I could have gotten pretty much the same result by drawing on gray paper. In fact, I am doing a similar landscape on gray paper and so far, I’ve done nothing with the sky.
For the sample drawing, I made the sky a little darker, and added lighter color along the horizon.
Is the sky finished? For the time being, yes. I’ll finish the drawing, then go back over the entire piece and make whatever adjustments might be necessary. Including the sky!
Next week, we’ll work on the hills on the horizon.
Would you like a copy of the reference photo so you can work along with me?