Today I’d like to talk about black paper; specifically, the best black paper for colored pencil art.
The post comes in response to a reader question. Here’s the question.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to ask for information. As a very senior citizen, one of my joys is and has been doing colored pencil work. I would like to try doing colored pencil work on a black surface. I love doing wildlife and so I thought the process would be dramatic.
Can you please suggest the proper black surface on which to do colored pencil work and what type of colored pencil [oil or wax? brand?] that would be most effective.
First of all, thank you to the reader for the question. I’m always happy to make recommendations and suggestions based on personal experience and observation.
The Best Black Paper for Colored Pencil Art
The reader is right. Black paper can make for very dramatic drawings. I’ve used it several times with wonderful results.
And I’ve used a few different types of paper, so can offer suggestions for that, as well.
But there are other questions, too, so let’s tackle each one of them.
Pencils to Use on Black Paper
Both wax- and oil-based pencils work well with black paper. I’ve used Prismacolor Premier and Faber-Castell pencils on colored paper. Both are suitable either by themselves or in combination.
Caran d’Ache Luminance are reported to be more opaque than most other colored pencils. If that is true (I haven’t used them so can’t say one way or another,) then they would be a good pencil for use on darker and black paper.
In short, the best thing to do is test the pencils you have on small pieces of paper first. If you’re dissatisfied with those, try other pencils. Buy two or three pencils at a time to see which work best for you. Then buy as many colors as you need (or a full set) of that brand.
My Favorite Black Paper
As for the best paper, the papers that suit my drawing style (I do lots of layering) best are Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Tientes. Both come in black.
Stonehenge is a 90-pound paper with a smooth, velvety texture. It stands up well under layering and can take a lot of color. If you mount it to a rigid support, it also performs well with moderate solvent blending and dries flat.
Canson Mi-Teintes is pastel paper, so it’s quite rough on the front. The back is ideal for colored pencil, but it is still rougher than Stonehenge. It’s a little bit heavier than Stonehenge—98-pounds—so is my personal preference. It’s good with moderate amounts of solvent and holds up well under layering.
Other Black Papers I’ve Used
Strathmore Artagain art paper is another black paper I’ve used and liked. Artagain is a 60-pound paper made from 30% post consumer paper. It feels almost like Bristol, but with a bit more tooth.
You might also try mat board. Mat board comes in a variety of types and textures. For the best results, use a museum quality mat board such as Crescent so your artwork lasts for years.
Mat board is a rigid support. Don’t blend with solvent or use wet media. Do layer color to your heart’s content!
I always liked mat board because I could get large sheets for bigger projects. And matting a piece with the same mat board it’s drawn on gives it a bit more sparkle (in my opinion.)
The Most Important Thing to Remember About Using Black Paper of Any Kind
The most important thing to remember about using black paper is that the colors you put on it look different than they look on white paper. Sometimes, the black paper seems to “absorb” the color, so you have to put more layers of the light colors on the paper to make them look bright.
Whatever paper you draw on and whatever pencils you use, have fun and experiment a little before doing a serious piece. That’s the absolute best way to find best black paper for colored pencil for your art.
I’ve received questions from readers who want to know how to draw see-through things. Veils. Smoke. Mist. That sort of thing.
Some time ago, I published a post on drawing a foggy morning, but enough readers are asking related questions to delve into this subject a little more completely.
This is not a tutorial. Instead, I want to share three general principles that apply to all see-through subjects, and that you can start using today.
How to Draw See-Through Things
The secret to drawing translucent or transparent subjects of any type is to stop thinking of your subject as your subject. For a lot of us, we look at the subject as a whole and are stumped. Immediately, our mind is trying to figure out how to draw that bridal veil, sheer curtain, ocean spray or water droplet. The prospect looks so scary, it shuts down all creativity!
Or, our mind tells us “I know what that looks like” and we draw what we think we see instead of what’s really there.
That principle works with every subject, of course. But when it comes to transparent or translucent subjects, it can be especially troublesome.
So lets look at a few ways to get past the hurdles of drawing see-through things.
Think of your subject as an abstract design.
Instead of trying to draw the whole thing, draw the shapes, values and colors you see within your subject. Do that well and the transparent or translucent subject will “appear” in the finished work.
It often helps to think of your composition as an abstract design. That tricks your mind into seeing the abstract shapes and that frees you up to draw those shapes shape-by-shape.
One way to accomplish this is turning your artwork (and reference photo) upside down while you work on it. Or sideways, for that matter.
I routinely turn my work as I draw. Usually to more easily work on one area or another. But that does keep a composition fresh in my mind’s eye and gives me a different perspective.
Look at the difference between this water droplet viewed right side up and upside down.
The more complex your subject, the more this fresh perspective helps.
Zoom In on Your Subject
Another way to draw see-through items is to zoom in on them so you’re not working on the entire thing at the same time.
How much more easily could you draw this…
With high resolution digital images, you can enlarge the image enough to focus on a very small part of the photo without losing definition. All you need to do then is mask your drawing to focus on the same spot.
But how do I mask a drawing?
I’m glad you asked!
Cut a small opening in a piece of clean paper. Printer paper will do. Make the opening any size you want, but preferably smaller than a quarter the size of the entire drawing for small pieces.
Lay this piece of paper over your drawing with the opening over the same part of the drawing as the enlarged portion of your reference photo.
You can work on that part of your drawing without being distracted by the rest of the drawing. When you finish, move the mask to the next area. Move the reference photo to the same relative area, too.
When you finish, remove the mask.
Pay Attention to the Edges, Values, and Colors
The appearance of edges, values, and colors differ depending on whatever is in front of them.
With this sheer curtain, for example, everything is subdued. The edges are soft. The values are muted, and the colors are dulled down.
With this water drop, however, the edges are crisp and the colors and values are just as vibrant looking at them through the drop of water as looking at them directly.
Those Three Principles will Help you Draw See-Through Things
And almost everything else you want to draw.
Break your subject down into manageable sections and you’ll be able to draw anything!
Lets talk about one way to draw rich black colors.
I recently wrote a post about drawing dark backgrounds and some of that information will help you draw rich black colors, too. But there are times when you need nice, saturated black colors and don’t want use heavy pressure to create them.
Peggy and I agree on one thing, though: The best black colors result from mixing different colors. You can use black—I do—but rarely alone.
But I don’t always use the same methods twice. However, here’s a general rule of thumb method that works every time with only a few adjustments.
Step 1: Decide What Type of Black You Need to Draw
That may sound like an odd place to begin until you realize that not all black colors are the same. Some blacks are warm, with shades of brown or gold mixed in. Other blacks are cool blacks and tend more toward blue or violet.
The best way to tell the difference is to look at your subject in good, natural light. If the subject is a warm black, you’ll see warm colors mixed in with the brightest highlights. The black may also look a bit brown.
If the subject is a cool black, there will be blues and other cool colors mixed in with the brightest highlights.
You need a very high resolution photograph to see this and even then, it can be a difficult decision to make. That’s why I prefer to see my subjects (usually horses) in person. On a sunny day, you can get a good look at the other colors that appear in the black hair.
One word of caution. On sunny days, there will usually be some blue in the upper highlights—those highlights on the upper surfaces. This could be because the black is cool, but it is always very likely the result of reflected light from the sky. Reflected sky light is always bluish on clear days. Don’t confuse reflected light highlights with other highlights. For the purpose of determining whether or not black is cool or warm, check the highlights other than those on the upper surfaces.
Step 2: Choose the First Color
I usually start a drawing with a light earth tone such as Light Umber Prismacolor or Brown Ochre Polychromos.
Depending on what you’re drawing, you may want to start with another color. I started this drawing with green, believe it or not, then layered many other colors to develop the black. I didn’t use Black until near the end of the drawing. Even then, I added black only to the darkest values.
A good rule of thumb is to make the first color warm or cool based on the type of black you need to draw.
What you want to do at this stage is draw the shadows, and begin establishing the middle values. But don’t draw them too dark. Every color you add darkens the values naturally, so draw even the shadows lightly.
Use a sharp pencil with light pressure, and start by carefully outlining the most obvious shadows, then filling in the shapes with the base color.
You may want to do two or three layers with the base color, darkening the shadows each time, but also drawing more middle values with each layer. By the time you complete a few layers, you should have dark values, two or three middle values, and the light values, which have no color at all.
Step 3: Mix Black in With Other Colors
Layer other colors over the black area. Choose those colors based on whether you’re drawing a cool, blue-black, or a warm brown-black. Alternate between the layers as you develop values, colors, and details.
It’s all right to use Black. I use it all the time, but it’s almost always toward the end of a project and I’m using it to darken an area. It can be mixed with the other colors at any stage or the process, however. The decision is based entirely personal preference.
And how much time you have to finish the drawing!
Step 4: Continue Layering Colors
Repeat the colors until you get the black you want, and/or until the paper holes are filled in. Mix Black in with the other colors, but you might also consider adding a complementary color once in a while just to add a little sparkle to whatever you’re drawing.
Step 5: Finishing Layers
You can either do the final layer with Black, or with a dark warm color if the black is warm, or with a dark cool color if the black is cool.
Again, use the colors that give you the result you’re looking for.
Beware Wax Bloom!
Whenever you use wax-based pencils and a lot of dark colors with medium pressure or heavier, you may encounter something called wax bloom. Wax bloom makes a drawing look cloudy or foggy, and it’s especially obvious in dark colors. If you use heavy pressure, wax bloom may appear overnight or even from one session to the next on the same day.
Don’t worry. It’s nothing serious. The wax binder in the pencils is rising to the surface of the color layers. Wipe it off with a clean tissue or cloth and go back to drawing.
When you finish, wipe off the wax bloom, then spray the drawing with a final fixative to keep wax bloom from happening again.
That’s One Way I Draw Rich Black Colors
As I mentioned before, this is just one way to draw rich black colors. There are others.
The best advice I can give you is to recommend you try every method you come across, and see which one works best for you.
And remember that not every method works equally well for every subject. Always look for ways to adjust your favorite methods to get better results.
Anyone who draws animals has to draw whiskers sooner or later. They’re such a small part of most animal art, but believe it or not, they can make or break a piece. It’s important to get them correct.
Today’s post is a followup to a reader question from December 2019. You can read that post here. That post was specifically about drawing whiskers over watercolor pencil and it’s a helpful article for anyone who combines watercolor and traditional colored pencils.
But I wanted to share a few more general tips for the rest of you.
There are several ways to draw whiskers, but the correct answer for each artist depends on what they want to do with their artwork. Since my focus is creating archival art, I’ll answer this question with methods that are archival.
But there are several other methods that can be very useful if you’re doing adult coloring books, greeting card art, or craft art. I’ll talk about some of those at the end of this article.
4 Ways to Draw Whiskers for Fine Art
The following four ways of drawing whiskers—or any similar small detail—should work with any brand of colored pencils.
They are all archival and are therefore acceptable for portrait work, and other animal art that you want to sell. They don’t all work for every situation, however, so it’s best to practice with each one before trying them on a piece that’s important.
#1: Impressed Lines
I used to always impress lines into the paper before layering color. I impressed lines to highlight hair, draw whiskers, and add other small details that would be difficult to draw over color.
Then I started using impressed lines after putting down a layer or two of color. That way, the line was whatever color I layered first, instead of the bright white of the paper.
Impressing lines still has a role in my work, but I no longer use it as often as I once did. Why? Mostly because I usually tended to go overboard with it. You know the idea. If one impressed line is good, two is better, and you can’t go wrong with three. Or four or five or a dozen.
Except that you can go wrong. Used too much, impressed lines become distracting.
When you use impressed lines, remember two things.
Tips for Impressing Lines
First, use your impressing tool the same way you use a pencil. That is, vary the amount of pressure you apply. For drawing whiskers, for example, start with heavier pressure at the base of the whisker and decrease the pressure as you draw toward the end of the whisker. That produces a more natural looking whisker.
Second, try impressing with a very sharp pencil. I sometimes use Prismacolor Verithin pencils for impressing lines. They’re a hard pencil and hold a point very well, so they’re perfect as a stylus. You can also add color at the same time, so you can see where your impressed lines are before you start layering color over them. That is always helpful (especially if you tend to go overboard!)
#2: Use a hard pencil to draw whiskers over color layers
The second method is to add them over layers of color by using one of the harder colored pencils. Prismacolor Verithin pencils are just like the regular Prismacolor pencils, except they contain far less wax. The pigment cores are thinner and harder, so the pencils hold a point longer. That’s what makes them excellent styluses, and it also makes them good for drawing over other colors.
What you do is layer all or most of the color you want in the animal’s face. Then sharpen a Verithin of the right color to a very sharp point, and draw whiskers over the other colors. Because the pencils are so hard, they dig into the color somewhat, but they also leave a little color. The resulting marks will not be very bright, but you can add less obvious whiskers this way.
Colored pencils with thinner, harder cores like Prismacolor Verithin pencils or many oil-based pencils can be used to draw subdued whiskers over other color. You can also use them to “dig into” the color a little, scratching out whisker shapes.
The biggest advantage is that you can add whiskers of different colors, so not all the whiskers look the same.
I’ve used this method in the past, but the results have never been what I was looking for. However, it is worth a try. It may just work for you!
#3: Scratch out whiskers with a knife
Probably the best way to add whiskers is to use a sharp tool like the Slice ceramic blade or an X-acto knife. Use the knife the same way you would a pencil, but scratch out color after you’ve finished the rest of the drawing. You can scratch a few marks into the drawing, then layer more color over it and scratch out a few more lines.
Be very careful, though. It’s frightfully easy to cut into or even through the paper if you tend to have a heavy hand. This method definitely requires practice before you use it on finished or nearly finished art.
#4: Brush & Pencil’s Touch Up Texture and Titanium White
Finally, there is Brush & Pencil’s Touch Up Texture and Titanium White. Titanium White can be painted right over colored pencil, then drawn over with more colored pencil. It was developed specifically for use with colored pencils, so there’s no worry about damaging a drawing or the white flaking off, as may happen with gel pens or acrylic paint.
Use a very small brush to paint the whiskers, then shade them as necessary with color with they come out too white.
Peggy Osborne uses these tools in most of her pet and animal tutorials. Take a look at one of those to see just how effective these tools are.
3 Non-Archival Methods to Draw Whiskers
The following three methods of drawing whiskers will work, but some of them work for very limited periods of time. They’re not suitable for artwork you plan to exhibit or sell, but if you do crafts, greeting cards, or create art from which to make reproductions and you don’t sell the originals, they will work.
When I was first getting started with colored pencils, I could never get bright enough highlights. So I bought a tube of white acrylic paint to add highlights. It looked great at first, but after the paint dried, it seemed to fade into the colored pencil. The result was so displeasing that I used it only a couple of times.
I’m glad that happened, because I’ve since learned that acrylic paint doesn’t stick to colored pencils very well for very long. It’s just like trying to get water to stick to oil. The wax in the pencils keeps the water-based acrylics from sticking.
I’ve never used gel pens with colored pencils, and probably never will because they behave in pretty much the same way acrylic paint. They may last for a while, but sooner or later the bond between the colored pencil and the gel pen will break down and the accents added with gel pen will flake off.
That won’t happen quickly enough to make a difference with greeting cards, adult coloring books, or craft art, but for portrait work and other drawings I want to last decades, it would be a problem.
I haven’t tried this, either, though I did once try adding details to an oil painting with a colored pencil. That didn’t work very well, and I don’t expect oil paint on colored pencil would, either.
But the biggest potential problem with this combination is not with the colored pencils. It’s with the paper. Oil paints are made with an oil vehicle to make them useful. That oil could soak through the layers of colored pencil and stain the paper beneath. It could even discolor the colored pencil.
The idea is interesting enough to have me thinking about trying it someday, but not interesting enough to try it on a finished drawing. Especially not one I like! If I do try it, I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Those are My Tips for Drawing Whiskers
They’re not the only methods by any means, so if none of these fit your drawing style or give you the look you want, keep looking.
And try new things. You never know which method will be your best solution.
Yesterday, I received a question from a reader who wanted to know my recommended paper and colored pencils. Since that’s one of the questions I frequently receive, I thought I’d share my answer today.
Here’s the question.
What brands are recommending for paper and pencils? Do you use different types of paper with different techniques?
My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils
I can only specifically recommend the brands I use or have tried for both paper and pencils. However, I am happy to provide information on both.
My Go-To Pencils
My go-to pencils are Faber-Castell Polychromos and Prismacolor (the lightfast colors only.)
I’ve used Prismacolor pencils from the beginning. I started with them because they were pretty much the only colored pencil available when I started back in the 1990s. They have always done what I wanted to do. The only changes I’ve made is in how I buy them (open stock and in-person only) and the colors I use (lightfast only.)
My husband bought me a full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos a couple of years ago and I use them on every drawing. Usually in combination with Prismacolor. The two brands compliment one another beautifully.
Pencils I’ve Tried and Liked
I have tried and liked Derwent Drawing pencils and Derwent Lightfast pencils, but in a limited fashion, since both pencils are pricy.
I have no fear of recommending either type, but would suggest you buy a few of your favorite colors to try before buying a full set of either.
My Go-To Papers
For paper, I most often use either Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper (the back side) or Stonehenge.
I also like Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper and am learning my way around Clairefontaine Pastelmat.
I also sometimes use Bristol vellum, but it’s not really a go-to paper for me.
Papers I’ve Tried and Liked
I’ve tried a lot of papers over the years and have liked many of them.
One of those is Strathmore’s Artagain Drawing Paper. This paper is made from about 30% post-consumer waste paper and it’s a delight to draw on. It’s almost like a combination of Bristol and Stonehenge. It takes quite a few layers of color like Stonehenge, but is smoother than Stonehenge.
Another paper I’ve tried and liked but haven’t used much is Uart sanded pastel paper. I’ve drawn on grits ranging from 240 grit (coarse) to 800 grit (fine.) It’s a great paper for layering and they now have a dark gray version if you like to work on dark paper.
Choosing the Right Paper and Pencils
The paper and pencils that work for you depend a lot on your drawing methods and your goals for your artwork.
In general, if you like a more painterly look, papers with more tooth will suit you better. You might want to try Canson Mi-Teintes or a sanded art paper.
If you like drawings with a lot of fine detail, try something smoother like Stonehenge, Artagain, or Bristol
I choose the paper based on the subject more than method. I especially like the Pastelmat for landscapes, but also use both Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes for landscapes.
I’ve not yet tried drawing an animal on Pastelmat, but have had good success on Canson Mi-Teintes, Stonehenge, and Bristol.
So try a few combinations and see what works best for you.
Want more Specific Advice on My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils?
A colored pencil comparison between wax-based and oil-based pencils is the topic for today’s post. It comes in response to the following reader question.
Hi Carrie, Which pencils do you consider best, oil or wax based? I have never used any pencils other than Derwents Coloursoft which I believe are wax based. What are the Pros and Cons of each?
There can be a lot of confusion about the differences and some artists go so far as to discount the distinctions altogether. So what’s truth and what’s hype?
Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based
Colored pencils are manufactured much the same as oil paints, watercolors, and other mediums. Powdered pigments are mixed with a substance that helps them perform the way artists want them to perform.
With oil paints, that substance is called a vehicle and is usually linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, although there are other vehicles available. The vehicle makes the pigment brushable and influences how quickly it dries.
Colored pencils use a binder. The binder makes it possible to form powdered pigments into a thin “lead” that can be used in pencil form. It also makes the pigment transfer to paper easily and stick there.
All colored pencils use a combination of some form of wax and oil as the binder. Wax-based pencils have more wax than oil. Oil-based pencils have more oil than wax.
The amount of wax compared to oil affects the way the pencils behave, as does the type of wax used in the binder.
Colored Pencil Comparison: Which is Best?
I don’t really consider one type of pencil better than the other. They’re just different.
Wax-based pencils are generally softer than oil-based pencils. They go onto paper more smoothly and blend extremely well by layering, burnishing, or with solvents.
Because they’re softer, they don’t hold a point very long and can be difficult to draw details with. I’ve used Prismacolor Soft Core pencils for decades and have been able to get wonderful detail, but it requires a lot of sharpening.
The pigment cores also are more apt to break if you use heavy pressure or sharpen them to too long a point. In addition, they can be susceptible to breakage if you drop them on a hard surface.
Finally, wax-based pencils can produce wax bloom, a misty sort of film that happens when the wax in the pigment rises to the surface of the drawing. It can easily be wiped away, but it can also be a nuisance. Especially if you use a lot of pressure or dark colors.
Oil-based pencils are generally harder than wax-based pencils. They hold a point longer and are excellent for drawing details. They’re not as likely to break while you’re drawing or if you drop them.
Oil-based pencils don’t produce wax bloom because they contain less wax.
They also erase or lift more easily if you make a mistake.
But they don’t always layer color as smoothly, so drawing even color requires either heavier pressure or more layers. I recommend more layers.
Using Wax- and Oil-Based Pencils Together
You can use both types together. That’s what I do.
Most of the time, I start with Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils (oil-based) and do as much layering as I can.
Toward the end of the process, I switch to Prismacolors(wax-based) where I need more color saturation.
But you don’t have to do it that way. You can intermix them at any point in a drawing.
The Colored Pencil Comparison that Really Matters
The much more important comparison is the grade of the pencil; the quality.
Scholar or student-grade pencils contain more binder (whatever it may be,) less pigment, and sometimes inferior pigment. You can create good art with them and if you’re on a budget, it’s better to start with student-grade pencils than not start at all.
But don’t go cheap. Always buy the highest quality pencils your budget allows. Select wax-based or oil-based pencils based on your personal preferences and you’ll be ahead of the game.
Today’s post is the result of one of those reader questions that’s too good not to publish. Chris wrote to me and asked a couple of excellent questions, including is using only one art medium limiting for the artist.
I’m an artist who mostly works on realism with ballpoint pen on paper. I’ve seen you’ve worked with oils alongside your colored-pencils. Do you see a bias towards your oil work versus your colored-pencil work? Do your clients prefer works on canvas as opposed to your works on paper?
I’ve been thinking about establishing myself as a portrait artist and wonder if I should be taking on a different medium (oil painting?) instead of sticking to pen on paper. Am I limiting myself? Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Thank you for your email and for your question. You presented more than one good question, so I’m going to answer them individually.
Is Using Only One Art Medium Limiting?
A lot of artists work their entire in one medium and/or one subject. A lot of other artists work in a lot of different mediums and paint whatever draws their attention.
There are “limitations” to both choices.
The artist who works in only one medium is limited in that he or she has decided not to take advantage of some of the benefits of other mediums. However, there’s lots of time learn everything there is to learn about their chosen medium and to get the most out of it.
The artist who works in more than one medium has the opportunity to learn about more than one medium and to take advantage of the benefits of each medium, but they may not have the time to explore each medium to it’s fullest.
In other words, there is no right or wrong answer to your question.
How you decide the answer to this question for yourself is by finding the things you most enjoy drawing and the medium that gives you the most satisfaction.
If you enjoy drawing portraits with pen and ink, then that’s what you should do. Explore the medium as much as you can and find out what’s possible with it. Look for pen-and-ink artists on YouTube and see what they’re doing that could improve your work.
The only thing I suggest is that if you’re planning to sell your work, find inks that are archival. I don’t honestly know how long-lasting the inks used in ball point pens are. My gut reaction is that they’re not archival, so that’s something you’d need to find out.
Also use the best paper you can afford. Using an archival medium on paper that yellows over time is also damaging to your work.
Bias Between Oils and Colored Pencils
You also asked about biases toward one medium or the other.
Some of my portrait clients liked oil portraits better and some liked colored pencil portraits. The bulk of portrait work was in oils, but I used oils exclusively for twenty years. Once I added colored pencil work, I did a lot of portraits both mediums.
Whenever you decide to use two or more mediums, it’s inevitable that you’ll gain fans of each medium. Most of them appreciate all of your work, but when it comes time to buy, most people have favorites.
The most obvious bias was either internal (I considered my colored pencil work to be less valuable than my oil paintings) or in the art world. Some galleries still will not accept colored pencil artwork under any circumstances, but I believe they are getting fewer and fewer in number.
I hope that answers your questions. Thank you again for writing, and for your great questions!
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
Jana wants to know why I switched from oils to colored pencils, and if I’ve noticed one sells better than the other? Here are Jana’s questions.
These are business related questions instead of technical ones, so if you choose not to use them on your December questions posts, I will understand.
1. Why did you switch to colored pencil from oils? I ask this because I went the opposite direction.
2. Do your colored pencil pieces sell as well as your oils did?
Your blog with all its tips and helps is so interesting to me because you reinforce much of what I tell my drawing students. Since I teach primarily how to draw with pencil, it is only my more advanced students who go to colored pencil, so I read your blog to be sure I am not leading anyone astray. (It has been about 15 years since I was active in the CPSA or used colored pencils other than as accents to my graphite.)
Thank you for your thoroughness and clarity.
Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.
Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils
I’ve addressed this subject more than once in the past, including a similar question earlier this month. But I wanted to answer this question because it also includes a question about sales.
And every artist trying to turn their artwork into money wants to know about sales!
I switched from oil painting to colored pencils for two main reasons, with about twenty years between the the first reason and the second.
Chapter 1: Convenience
For over forty years, I painted portraits of horses. I was an oil painter because that’s the medium I learned as a preteen and teen. By the time I sold my first portrait at 17-years-old, I’d already been painting for several years. Continuing to oil paint was never a question. I often told people I’d retire when I fell face down in my palette!
Part of my marketing strategy (if you care to use such lofty terms) was attending horse shows and trade shows. Michigan hosted two big shows every year. The Lansing Stallion Expo in March and the North American Horse Spectacular in Novi every November. For many years, I attended both with a collection of paintings and drawings, but my primary goal was lining up portrait work.
I saw artists working at those shows and thought it would be cool, but oil paints are such a nuisance to travel with. They pack all right if you don’t take everything in the studio, but working on a painting in public is risky, and getting wet paintings home safely is no picnic either.
So in the 1990s I started looking for another medium that traveled better. I wanted something that could produce oil painting-like results, high levels of detail, gorgeous color, AND was easy to transport and use on location. Pastels were out because I’d already tried those and disliked them, so colored pencils were the only choice.
I intended to continue oil painting. Colored pencils gave me a second medium to offer clients, but I really preferred to work in oils.
Most clients chose oils, but some preferred colored pencils. One couple even opted for watercolor colored pencils. Talk about a step outside my comfort zone!
Chapter 2: Changing Focus
Eventually, portrait work tailed off. I think the move to Kansas had a lot to do with that. Most of my clients were from Michigan and I had been active with the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association since the second year it hosted a benefit art auction. Many clients purchased their first portraits there and some of them became repeat customers.
Kansas isn’t that far away from Michigan, but it was too far to make the trip to the MHHA auction every January. I continued participating, but by long distance. Then they canceled the auction.
After that, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, I couldn’t sell a portrait to save my life. The last portrait was completed in 2016. An oil portrait for which there’s a moving story. But still the last portrait.
Back then, colored pencils were just starting to catch on, thanks to adult coloring books. I enjoyed them. They were a lot easier to manage in my studio (which is one corner of what should be the dining room,) and they were still portable. My husband played in the Wichita Community Band and I could take pieces to work on during weekly practices.
So colored pencils became my primary medium.
Long Story Short
(I know. Too late for that, isn’t it?)
A decision that began as a matter of convenience became a matter of finding a marketing niche twenty years later. Simple as that.
I haven’t completely given up on oil painting. I still love the process, the colors, the results, and even the smells. But let’s be honest. With cats and kittens in the house, it just doesn’t make sense to try oil painting!
Maybe some day I’ll get back to it.
That’s why I switched from oils to colored pencils. Now about selling original art….
Oil Painting Versus Colored Pencils in Art Sales
The other part of Jana’s question is about sales. Have I noticed one medium outselling the other?
The cold hard truth is that my originals aren’t selling. At all. Any of them.
It’s been a couple of years since I sold original work and those were mostly ACEOs through eBay. Most of those were oil paintings, but mostly because that’s what most of my ACEOs were.
Now, before you begin feeling sad for me, let me add that my work doesn’t sell because, quite frankly, I don’t market it!
I’m working on a red/yellow pix of an African Bush Viper snake. I am trying to do one scale at a time and it’s sorta working. It’s VERY confusing trying to make sure that I’m on the right scale in the right row etc. I’ve crossed out the scales as I go but …. good thing no one knows the snake personally!
How do you keep track of the colors you’re using, in what order you lay them down or blend. This guy has lots of reds, dark reds, pinks, oranges, lemon yellow, light yellow, cream, and some in between. The colors repeat (sorta) down a section of the body. I get so involved trying to get the part I’m working on right that by the time I need to repeat it, I don’t know exactly what I did.
I feel like there is a logical answer but I can’t see it.
Sorry this is so convoluted. You should see my rant on Flicker about POLKA DOTS😶
No, I don’t read minds at all (I don’t always know my own, let alone messing with other people’s!)
I’ve learned after so many years of blogging that if something affects me personally, it affects others. Those sorts of posts resonate.
I know exactly what you mean about repeating patterns. I did one of those a year ago. A red Christmas ornament with a braided cord of yellow, green, and red. Not quite on the scale of what you’re doing, but very close.
How to Keep Track of Colors that Repeat
Here’s the finished drawing.
When it came time to draw the cord, I thought I had it pretty well taped, because I’d drawn everything out carefully. Except I hadn’t been as careful as I thought and I didn’t get more than two or three of those repeating patterns done before I realized I’d made a mistake in the line drawing.
Time for a rethink.
The first order of business? Scrapping the line drawing and just laying down color, blocking in each color from one end of the cord to the other. I don’t remember the order I worked in, but would guess it was probably yellow, then green then red (light to dark.) I put flat color in each area using light or medium pressure and a sharp pencil.
After blocking in the cord, I went back and add shadows and middle values to create highlights.
I used only six colors total. A light or medium value yellow, green and red, a dark value green and red, and a light golden brown. The blocking in was with the lighter colors and I did all of each color in that round. So there was no need to remember the order.
Then I went back and did the same thing with the darker colors. Again, there was no need to really remember the order of each color because I worked the entire area with each color.
When I did the final round and added details, then I worked back and forth between lights and darks and may have even added other colors to get darker values.
For the most part, I either laid the pencils to one side of my working area, or held them in my left hand. A method known fondly as the handful of pencils method.
But that method works best if you’re using only a few pencils on a small drawing (or a small area.) I used six or seven over a small area. The entire drawing was only 8 x 10 inches.
So probably doesn’t help you with your African Bush Viper, since you’ve already done some of the scales.
Two More Ways to Keep Track of Repeating Colors
There are a couple of ways to keep track of colors in complex pieces.
Make Swatches as You Work
The easiest method is to make a mark somewhere along the edge of the drawing or on a piece of scrap paper as you use each pencil. Either before or after you layer that color, do a little swatch or even just a mark or two. You don’t even need to label them, because you can compare pencils to the marks.
Do the same thing with the next color and the next and the next and so on. If you repeat a color, make another mark, so you have every layer documented, as well as every color.
This will be easier if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the rest of your pencils. Hold them in your hand if they’re just a few, or put them in a cup or jar, or just lay them to one side. Quite often, I take them out of the box and then keep the box a little bit apart from where I’m working. Handy, but not so handy I’m likely to put a pencil back into it without thinking.
Mind, the difficult part is going to be remembering to make that mark. If you draw anything like I do, you get so involved in the process that everything else ceases to exist. You’ll have to train yourself to make this part of the process, so it becomes automatic.
Try a Color Recipe Sheet
The second way I’ll describe is to make a “recipe sheet” before you start. Use the same type of paper you plan to do the drawing on, and make a small study. In the case of your African Bush Viper, you might draw a few scales in full, glorious color. After you’ve seen which combination of colors works the best, make either a swatch or a written list of the colors you’ve used and the order in which you used them.
Keep that sheet handy as you work through your drawing.
Of course this method also works best if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the others.
One Thing to Keep in Mind
Even on an African Bush Viper, the scales that are the same colors and have the same patterns will look different depending on where they are along the body, and whether they’re in light and shadow.
It may be frustrating—maybe very frustrating—not to know the exact order of color application, but it probably won’t make that much difference in the finished piece.
I’ve never drawn a snake before, and I don’t know if I will. But I venture to guess those subtle variations that happen when the same colors are applied in different order might produce a more realistic and natural drawing. Get the light values light enough and the dark values dark enough.
Thanks for the question, though. It brought a smile to my face and that’s always a good thing!
PS: I’d love to see your African Bush Viper when it’s finished, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one (reading minds, again!)