Today, I want to show you something fun and helpful: How to draw a sunset sky with watercolor pencils.
Here’s the good news. It’s not as difficult as it may seem (at least not the way I did it!)
How to Draw a Sunset Sky with Watercolor Pencils
I used Derwent Watercolour Pencils on Stonehenge 98lb drawing paper in white. I’ll tell you up front that Stonehenge handles water well, but you MUST tape it to a rigid support so it dries flat.
The sample drawing for this tutorial was 3-1/2 inches by 2-1/2 inches in size, so it was difficult to tape down. I set an empty drink bottle on the paper while it was drying and that kept the paper flat, but I do not recommend this method. The bottle I used was very lightweight and clean, so it didn’t leave marks on the paper.
One other note. I didn’t use a reference photo for this piece. Since it’s so small, I painted the sky from memory, then drew the branches from life. You can create your own piece the same way, or from a reference photo.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Layer colors on the paper from light to dark.
Use light-medium pressure to layer color on the paper. Create even color layers with whatever method works best for you. I used the sides of well-sharpened pencils to layer each color.
Begin with the lightest color and work through the colors into the darkest color you want to use.
I used Deep Cadmium, Orange Chrome, Deep Vermilion, Crimson Lake, Imperial Purple, and Prussian Blue. All you really need is yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue so the gradations between colors are smooth and natural looking.
If you want a lighter, brighter sky, skip the purple and blue.
Step 2: Activate watercolor pencils with water.
Blend colors with water. Work from light to dark and stroke across the paper horizontally.
Use a large, soft brush, and try to stroke only once across each color. The more you stroke over each area, the more likely you’ll end up with streaks. The streaks in this illustration happened because I got too fussy.
You’ll notice two things immediately when using watercolor pencils. The blended color is darker than the dry color. Derwent’s pencils are very pigmented, so they produce excellent color.
The other thing you’ll notice in this sample is the streakiness in the darker colors. That’s my fault. I used a small brush to blend and didn’t blend fast enough to produce smooth color (in addition to going over the paper too many times!)
At this stage of the process, that’s not a major concern, but it’s still best to avoid whenever possible.
Step 3: Continue to layer and blend with water until you have the color saturation you want.
Continue to add color and activate with water until you have the color and saturation you want.
I did two more rounds of layering and blending. Each round was essentially the same as those described in Step 1. Same colors in the same areas, though I faded each color a little more into the adjacent colors.
For the second round, I layered Deep Vermilion over the top third of the sky, then added Orange Chrome over the top two-thirds. Finally, I layered Deep Cadmium over the entire piece. That unified the colors and toned down the blues and purples, which got too dark. I used medium pressure or slightly heavier to put a lot of pigment on the paper.
Then I washed the whole thing with water and a large soft brush to blend the colors.
Step 4: Draw the basic branch shapes.
Draw the silhouetted trees dry, using watercolor pencils the same way you’d use traditional colored pencils. Use dark colors. I used black and a dark brown mixed to give the branches a warmth that black alone wouldn’t provide.
Then use a very small, round brush (I used a sable) to activate the color. Stroke in the direction the branches grow. From the base up.
You don’t need to keep the edges crisp or blend the colors uniformly. Having softer edges in places, and having some areas more brown and others blacker gives the branches a sense of movement.
Step 5: Finishing the sunset sky with watercolor pencils dry
With a very sharp pencil, add the smaller branches. If you’re drawing from life, observe the growth patterns and draw them as accurately as you can. Don’t worry about getting every branch and twig in exactly the right place. Instead, focus on the general shapes and patterns.
You can activate a few of these smaller branches with water if you wish. I didn’t because I lack brushes small enough for that type of detail. I also wanted the bolder look of dry pencil over wet.
Final Thoughts on Drawing a Sunset Sky with Watercolor Pencils
I used Derwent Watercolour pencils for this work, but you can do the same thing with any artist quality watercolor pencil.
Also try watercolor papers. You can use the same method but watercolor paper gives you the opportunity to push the watercolor features a little further.
It was a lot of fun to layer dry color over wet, to paint in broad washes, and with more deliberation. It was quite a learning experience.
One thing you can’t do is put watercolor pencils over wax-based or oil-based traditional pencils, then activate them with water.
Well, I guess you could if you really wanted to, but the watercolor will not stick to the wax or oil for very long.