Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Today, I’d like to share a few tips for drawing clouds.

Clouds can be majestic and towering, thin and wispy. Peaceful. Threatening. Calm. Stormy.

They are almost always intimidating to draw, and drawing them accurately takes time and patience. But it is possible to draw any type of cloud realistically if you follow these basic principles.

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencils

The following tips are universal to all clouds, no matter what tools you use, your favorite drawing method, or even your preferred artistic style. Master these four simple principles and you’ll find you can draw any cloud.

And almost anything else you want to draw.

Tip #1: Don’t Let the Scope of the Subject Intimidate You

Of all the tips for drawing clouds that I might offer, this is the most important, because it’s such a problem for so many.

You want to draw a cloud, but you look up in the sky or find a beautiful photo and are scared to death! Clouds are so big and awesome. There are so many details to get right, and all those colors. Especially in the morning or evening.

And for most of us that’s all the further the idea gets. We embrace the desire to draw clouds, but never follow through.

That’s a mistake! Clouds don’t have to be difficult to draw, and I discovered that lesson by trial and error.

Instead of focusing on all those details, focus on the overall shape and character of the cloud. Is it big and towering? Is it short and fat? Does it lean a little bit one direction or another?

Even slow moving clouds change constantly. By the time you do a quick sketch, the cloud you’re drawing will have changed, so let go of the idea that you have to get every detail right.

Adapt the same mindset when drawing from reference photos. The only way to get a 100% accurate drawing is by tracing it. There’s nothing wrong with tracing, but you still have to shade the drawing afterward.

So go for character. Forget all those intimidating details.

At least until you’ve drawn a few clouds.

Tip #2: Look at the Colors

Clouds are not always white. Let me rephrase that.

Clouds are hardly ever white. At least not just white.

In the middle of the day, with the sun on them, they can be full of shadow, half shadow, full light, and reflected light. Depending on where you live (it does make a difference) and what time of year it is, you could see grays, blues, yellows, and mixtures.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Clouds are not always white.

Before you start layering color, take a good look at the cloud you want to draw. Identify the main colors you see, then the secondary colors. You can add other colors as you draw, but having the main colors handy will help you draw more quickly if you’re drawing from life.

And even if you’re not drawing for life, it’s helpful if you don’t have to search through your pencil box every time you need to change colors. Some of us even prefer the “handful of pencils” method in which we keep our pencils firmly gripped in one hand!

Tip #3: Light Pressure, Sharp Pencils, Smooth Color

Smooth color is key to drawing realistic clouds. Even dark, stormy clouds require smooth layers of color and soft, sometimes subtle shading.

The best way to achieve that is by drawing several layers with light pressure and very sharp pencils.

If you’re still learning about pencil strokes, I suggest you make circular strokes your go-to stroke. The reason is that you can overlap layers without creating unwanted edges where strokes begin and end as might happen with back-and-forth strokes.

That’s not to say you can’t draw smooth color with other types of strokes, but it can be easier with circular strokes. If you’ve learned to make other strokes work for you, use them.

It’s important to keep your pencils sharp, too. Sharp pencils get into the nooks and crannies of paper tooth better than blunt pencils. The more you fill in the tooth of the paper, the smoother your color layers will be.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.
Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.

Tip #4: Don’t Quit Too Soon

The biggest mistake most artists (myself included) make with colored pencils is thinking a drawing is finished when there’s color all over the paper. That is so not true!

Most subjects benefit from vibrant color and clouds are certainly no different. Especially those colorful clouds that happen around sunrise or sunset. The best way to get vibrant color is with enough layers of color to fill in the tooth of the paper.

When you think a drawing is done, set it aside for a day or two, then evaluate it honestly. Start by asking the following questions:

What areas can I improve on?

Are the dark values dark enough?

Are the colors rich enough?

Does one area look more finished (or less finished) than the rest of the drawing?

Work on the drawing until you can honestly say it’s as good as you can make it. Even if all you end up doing is one more hour of work, you will be able to see the difference. Especially if you scan or photograph the drawing before and after you make those changes.

Which, by the way, I highly recommend.

These Tips for Drawing Clouds are Great, But is That All?

No.

The reader who asked about drawing clouds actually asked specifically for help drawing the clouds of evening or morning. That sounded a lot like a tutorial to me and that was beyond the scope of a question-and-answer post.

So I’m planning a tutorial post with evening clouds as the subject. Probably a series of posts. So watch for that.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed these tips for drawing clouds and would like to read more, sign up for my free weekly newsletter. Click on the group labeled “Weekly Newsletter” in the “I’m Interested In” section of the sign up form to get the newsletter of new posts.

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How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

How do you decide the order of colors to get the right color, values, or appearance? There are so many options, how do you decide?

That’s what Catherine wants to know. Here’s her question:

How do you determine the order of layers of different colors? I spend a lot of time testing the order of laying down color on the outer edges of my drawings, is there a quicker or better way?

This is a great question, Catherine. Thank you for asking it.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

One of the joys of colored pencils is the ability to layer multiple colors to create new colors. You also have a wonderful selection of colors to use. So you have to decide which colors to use when, and I confess that decision can look mind-boggling.

So how do you decide the order of colors? Is there a simple method or technique?

I’m afraid the answer is no. In fact, the best answer is one most of us prefer not to hear. Practice and experience.

Lots of both.

But there are few basic principles that may help you make those decisions more easily.

How to Decide the Order of Colors

I once read about an oil painter who used only seven or eight colors and mixed everything else. Obviously, his techniques won’t work with colored pencils, but his method of deciding which colors to mix, what colors to start with, and adjusting colors as he painted can be applied to colored pencils.

The following tips are based on personal experience and the oil painter’s methods.

Study the Colors in Your Reference Photo

The first step is to study the color of whatever you’re drawing. What’s the main color and to what color family does it belong?

This horse, for example, is yellow-gold in overall color. The color family is brown tending toward yellow or golden.

This color family provides the foundation colors for this portrait. The main color family provides the foundation colors for whatever you want to draw.

So determine the main color family for your drawing. Not every color will be appropriate, but identifying the main color family will ultimately help you decide the order in which you apply colors.

Start with a Base Color

The base color comes from the main color family.

The base color should be a medium-light or lighter value. Ideally, as close to the color of the highlights as you can get. If you have to use a color darker than the highlights in your subject, work around the highlights.

This is the first color you’ll put on paper, and it’s also one of the colors you’ll use most often. Set it aside.

This is the base color for Portrait of a Palomino Filly (read the full tutorial.) The paper is a light eggshell color just a little darker than the highlights, so I chose a base color that was a little darker than the paper. This color was used throughout the completion of the drawing.

Choosing the Next Color

After you’ve layered the base color, compare your drawing to your reference. Chances are excellent the base color isn’t exactly the same as the colors in the photo.

So what color do you need to add to make the color on the paper more like the color in the reference photo?

For my horse portrait, I decided the base color needed to be warmed up, so I chose a warm, light-value color that was about the same color as the highlights, and layered that over the horse.

After I finished that layer, I compared drawing and photo again, and chose a reddish earth tone to add more color and value.

The color selection process continued that way until I’d used five or six colors, then I began layering them over and over.

Do the same thing with your work. Compare your drawing and reference photo after you’ve layered each color. Decide how your drawing differs from the reference, and what color you need to use to make the drawing more like the reference.

Keep making those decisions layer by layer, color by color, until you finish.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering
The final color or colors are adjustment colors. They add value (darken dark values) or tint the colors already on the paper. Sometimes they do both.

That’s the Easiest Way I Know to Decide the Order of Colors

Don’t fret too much over deciding what order you should apply colors. You will make mistakes. That’s part of the learning process. Be bold and courageous! Learn from those mistakes.

Catherine says she spends a lot of time testing colors before using them on a drawing. That’s a good idea and a lot of artists swear by it. It’s a good way to gain the experience necessary to know instinctively what colors to use when.

The other option—the one I used when I began—was simple trial and error. Mostly error, sometimes (or so it seemed.)

But knowledge acquired by experience often sticks with me more quickly and longer than what I see or hear by example.

Image by husnil khawatim from Pixabay

My Advice for Deciding the Order of Color Application

Don’t worry too much about getting the order of color application correct right from the start. Unless you’re a highly analytical artist (yes, there are some of those,) it will be more frustrating than helpful to try to plan so carefully. You’re far more likely to frustrate yourself into not drawing at all. At least that’s what happens when I try to plan too far ahead.

The fact of the matter is that one layer of color could totally upset all those carefully laid plans.

So work one color at a time. Do those test swatches if they help you, but don’t try to swatch out the entire drawing before you start drawing.

Instead, choose the base color and put that on the paper.

Then compare what you’ve drawn with your reference photo to decide on the next color. Keep track of the colors you use and the order in which you use them if you like, but work step by step through the drawing until it’s finished.

I guarantee you’ll have more fun drawing and finish more drawings that way.

Unless you are an analytical sort of artist!

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Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

Today’s question is a two-part question from Pat, who wants to know more about layering and blending colored pencils. Here’s the question:

Hello,

You say that you like to keep your pencils very sharp.  Do you do most of the layering with the point or the side of the pencil?

Do you also use mineral spirits on all your pictures?

In advance, thank you for reading my requests. Pat

Thank you for your questions, Pat.

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

You’ve touched on two of the most basic skills necessary to using colored pencils successfully. Master layering and blending, and everything else is icing on the cake!

Layering and Blending with Colored Pencils

Of all the ways to blend colored pencils, the best, most natural, and easiest way is layering. Every time you lay one color over another, you’re blending. The light moves through the different colors and mixes them so your eye sees a new color.

But you can layer with the tip of sharp pencils or with the side. There is a time and place for both.

Layering and Blending with Sharp Pencils

Most of the time, smooth color is vital to smooth blends, and sharp pencils are usually necessary for smooth color. So I use the tip of a well-sharpened pencil most of the time. And because I have a naturally light hand, I use light pressure for all beginning layers and as many others as possible.

But that’s not to say there’s never a time to use the side of a pencil. The side of a pencil is perfect for laying down thin layers of color over larger areas and for glazing. The sharper the pencil (and the longer the exposed pigment core,) the better.

In this illustration, for example, I wanted to draw a meadow seen from a distance. No sharp detail. Not much variation in values. So I used the side of the pencil to layer green, and let the paper show through help suggest the haziness of distance.

Layering and Blending with the side of a pencil
You can layer color with the side of a pencil instead of the point. When you use the side, the pencil can either be dull (as shown here) or well sharpened.

Another time when I’m likely to use the side of the pencil is to glaze one color over other colors.

Layering and Blending with Glazes

Glazing is a term that refers to adding very thin, transparent layers of color over color already on the paper. It’s an oil painting term and you create a glaze in oil painting by thinning paint so it’s very fluid and thin. It tints the colors under it, but doesn’t hide any of the details.

Obviously you can’t do the same thing with a colored pencil, because it’s a dry medium. But you can apply color so lightly that all it does is tint whatever colors are underneath. That’s what I mean by glazing.

I glazed yellow-green over the grass and a combination of greens over the umber under drawing of this portrait. The colors glazed change the color of the under under drawing without covering it completely.

A colored pencil glaze needs to be applied with light pressure. But broken color (when some of what’s underneath shows through) is also good for glazing with colored pencils. The side of a well-sharpened pencil is perfect for this, too.

Layering and Blending with Dull Pencils

There are also times when using a dull pencil is the best choice. I wrote about that a few days ago and you can read that post here. I mention it here because using sharp pencils sometimes isn’t the best—or fastest—way to layer or blend colored pencils.

Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits

Now, about odorless mineral spirits.

Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are a solvent designed to “melt” or liquefy the binder in colored pencils. While the binder is liquefied, the pigment can be moved around on the paper, smoothed out, and if you’re blending more than one color, the different colors can be blended together almost like paint.

There are a number of reasons to use odorless mineral spirits or any other solvent for blending.

Speed

Solvent blending is faster than blending by layering. You do need to have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to work with, but that usually requires only three or four layers.

Saturation

Solvent blending fills the tooth of the paper more completely and more quickly. Pigment soaks into the tooth of the paper better when wet than when dry.

Pain

If you have arthritis in your hands or wrists, or have some other painful condition, solvent blending may very well be the only way you can use colored pencils. Blending with solvent on a brush is a lot easier on your hands than blending by layering, especially in the later layers, when you have to apply more pressure.

So there are good reasons to use solvent blending.

Do I Use Solvent on All of My Work?

No.

Although I have mineral spirits in my colored pencil toolbox, the truth is that I don’t use it very often. When I do use it, it’s usually because I want some kind of special effect that’s attainable only with solvents, or I’m on a short deadline and need to complete something quickly.

There’s nothing wrong with using solvents for blending. I used turpentine and other solvents for years with oil painting.

But I prefer the look of colored pencils blended without solvents. Layering and blending different colors or different shades of the same colors to get the effects I want is more enjoyable than using solvents.

What Matters Most When with Layering and Blending

What really matters most with layering and blending is what works best for you. If solvent blending gives you the look you want for you art, then use it.

If you prefer to blend by layering, that’s what you should do.

Investigating how other artists work is always a good idea. You never know when you’ll learn something that takes your art to the next level.

But don’t feel obligated to use every method you see demonstrated.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Every portrait artist wants to draw more realistic portraits no matter their chosen subject. Dee is interested in learning how to draw more accurate human portraits. Here’s her question:

Hi

Still having issues with drawing faces. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with generic proportions, it’s more a question of how to modify the generic male/female proportions to more closely replicate a particular subject’s face and then, colored pencil color combos to better reflect various skin tones, including shadows.

Thanks, Carrie for your advice.

Dee

Thank you for your question, Dee. I can help you.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Dee has actually asked two questions, both of which would make complete posts on their own.

I also don’t do very many portraits these days and didn’t do very many people when I was doing a lot of portrait work. My subjects were usually equine in nature.

But the same principles that apply to drawing horse portraits also apply when you want to draw more realistic portraits of people.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Drawing Faces to Look Like Specific People

Drawing generic faces is good practice, but when you start drawing specific people, it’s probably best not to start with a generic face.

Those generic drawings and an understanding of the basic proportions of any subject is good practice and time well spent. It’s helpful, for example, to know that the space between most people’s eyes is equal to the width of the eye itself.

But when you start drawing a specific person (or horse or dog or whatever,) it’s best to keep those basic proportions in mind, but to pay more attention to the individual subject.

Look at the person you’re drawing and draw them from the start.

The reason is that there’s endless variety in the human face. Yes, most people have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but a mouth can be small or large with thin lips or full. The eyes can be large or small and close together or far apart. And noses can be long or short, wide or narrow, dished, hooked, or perky.

And then there’s all the possible expressions.

So rather than start with a generic shape and try to make it look like a specific person, start by drawing the specific person.

How to Draw a Specific Person

I have drawn a couple of human portraits in my portrait career. The most recent one was a large oil portrait of a horse owner without the horse. She was the subject. Since the portrait was pretty large (24 x 36 inches,) my model was also going to be quite large. There was no room for error either in drawing or in painting.

So I drew a series of studies of her eyes, her mouth and her hands (the portrait was full body.) I even sketched her handbag and some of the other props in the portrait.

Draw more realistic portraits by drawing studies of individual features.

Then I drew her. When I had the drawing as good as I thought I could make it, I made a tracing directly from the reference photo then compared the two line drawings by laying one over the other. That was a great way to see where my drawing needed improvement.

I continued refining the drawing and comparing to the tracing until it was as good as I could make it.

Because the final portrait in my example was in oils, I continued improving the likeness while I painted. You can’t do that very easily with colored pencils, so take extra time to refine the likeness at the line drawing stage.

Colored Pencil Combinations for Skin Tones

Drawing accurate skins tones is both complex and simple.

It can be complex because there are so very many types of skin color from very dark to very light. Lighting also plays a role in drawing skin tones, so there really isn’t a standard set of colors that can be used for drawing every skin tone in every lighting situation.

This gray and white cat looks gray and white in this photo.

You would expect to use white to draw this cat in this light, and you would be right.

But I’d use different colors to draw him accurately in this photo, taken in the golden light of evening.

The same cat in different lighting. I’d use no white (or very little) to draw this portrait.

The same principle applies to drawing human skin tones.

Yes, those select sets for skin tones are a good place to start, but also use other colors. Using six shades of flesh tones and pinks will produce reasonable skin tones for many portraits, but they honestly can’t produce the vibrant, life-like skin tones you’re probably looking for. Even a portrait of a fair-skinned person in good light benefits from additional colors.

How to Select Additional Skin Tone Colors

First, take time to study the colors in your reference photo, but don’t focus on the actual skin tones at the beginning. The first thing is the lighting. Remember the cat illustration above.

The skin of a fair-skinned person in subdued lighting will require darker colors than the skin of the same person in strong light.

If you can, forget that you’re drawing a person and look at the colors in each area. Enlarge your reference photo to show each area separately or use a color picker. Match a colored pencil color to the color you see in the photo, or shown by a color picker.

I used IrfanView to pick a color in this illustration. The color picker tool is circled in black. I used that tool to click on the place in front of the cat’s eye and the color appeared in the box marked by the arrow.

Using a color picker helps you isolate individual colors, and that helps you match them more accurately.

Repeat the process for each part of the face, then blend those colors in with the skin tones when you layer.

Learning to Draw More Realistic Portraits Takes Practice

The more portraits you draw, the better you’ll get at seeing shapes accurately and accurately drawing what you see.

The same applies to seeing and reproducing colors, too.

So don’t give up. It looks daunting at the beginning. I know. I remember the first horse portraits I painted. Wanting to get them right but lacking the skill and know-how was agonizing!

But I did enough portraits to learn what worked and what didn’t.

You will too!

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How to Make Trees Look Real

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know how to make trees look real. Here’s the question:

When doing trees and bushes, do you round them similarly to rounding wine glasses and bottles.  I tried to round bushes and it does not appear real. What do you do to get the 3D for them?

Thank you for your question.

How to Make Trees Look Real

Making trees—or anything—look more real looks complicated, but it really isn’t if you keep three simple principles in mind.

Shape

Value

Variety

Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

How to Make Trees Look Real

You can make trees look real by using the same shading principles you might use with a wine glass or a vase. Shading is shading, after all, no matter what you’re drawing.

The difficulty is that a wine glass or a vase is a simple shape and most trees are not. They are a collection of smaller shapes within the larger shape, so for your wine glass shading to work, you have to shade each of the smaller shapes, too.

To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.
To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.

Shape

Everything in the world can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes. Circles, squares, and triangles. Circles can be squeezed into ovals, and squares can be stretched into rectangles or twisted into other four-sided shapes. Triangles are pretty much always triangles, but they can take a number of different configurations.

Trees are no different than any other subject.

The trunks are usually some form of rectangle, with smaller rectangles as branches. The canopy of the tree (the leafy part) is usually some type of circle or oval at it’s most basic, but it can be broken down a collections of shapes as shown here.

Start with the biggest shapes first, then add the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Drawing trees that look real begins with the very first marks you put on the paper, with the big shapes. Get those big shapes correct, and you’re off to a good start.

Value

The thing that makes a shape (circle, square or triangle) into form (something that takes up space) is values. Shadows. Light areas and dark areas.

These light and dark areas reveal how light falls on the shape. The parts of the shape facing the light are getting direct light. The parts of the shape facing away from the light are getting very little light. In between is a variety of lighter or darker values known as middle values.

Values are just as important with trees as with anything else you might want to draw.

What makes trees look so complex is that they have so many different, smaller shapes within the larger shape. At first glance, they can look too complicated to draw, but use the same principle of values with each of the smaller shapes as with a larger shape and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to make trees look real.

Even with very crude shading as shown below, this sketch begins to look more like a real tree.

Shade around the largest shapes, but also around the smaller shapes. Treat each shape like an individual subject. Draw each one before moving to the next and the tree won’t be quite so overwhelming.

Variety

No two trees are ever identical. Not even two trees of the same species are identical. So vary the sizes and shapes of the trees you draw.

One of the best ways to do this is to draw from life. Keep to basic sketches and big forms, but take note of how one tree differs from the next.

The more you practice sketching trees so they look like individual trees instead of cookie cutter trees, the more realistically you’ll be able to draw trees with colored pencils.

I Hope that Helps You Make Your Trees Look Real

Like any other subject, trees look complicated when you first start drawing them. Take the time to practice first by learning the basic principles of drawing. Then sketch trees from life or photos until seeing the shapes and characteristics of each one becomes second nature.

Than you’ll be able to make your trees look real!