How to Sketch Clouds in Pencil

01
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What Type of Clouds Will You Draw?

cloud drawing reference photo
H South

Drawing clouds seems like an easy task and it is. Yet, when you're looking to do a great sketch in pencil, it's important that you pay attention to the subtle details. This exercise will walk you through the process step-by-step and give you the tips required to create eye-catching clouds on paper.

Possibly the most difficult part of drawing clouds in pencil is the absence of color. We are using simple graphite pencils (this works in charcoal as well), so shading is important. You will need to pay greater attention to highlights and shadows in order to make your clouds pop off the page, so let's get started.

Choosing the Right Clouds to Draw

The first step in drawing clouds is to choose the right subject. 

  • A deep blue sky will give you good contrast to work with.
  • When observing the sky, a viewfinder can help you to reduce the scene to a manageable size and block out any clutter.
  • Photographs are useful, as the sky changes so rapidly.

Carefully observe the values in your sky, examine the highlights on the whitest clouds, and note the shadows underneath the clouds. Where can you see crisp, clear edges and where are the edges soft and blurry?

The example we're working with has a mix of fluffy cumulus clouds and wispy cirrus clouds. It's a nice practice for the two types and the same approach can be taken for other cloud formations.

02
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Blocking In the Clouds

cloud drawing in progress
H South

For a subject like clouds, the choice you make for the paper is going to significantly affect the look of the drawing. A hard, hot-pressed watercolor paper, has a clearly visible grain as shown in the example. For a smoother surface, choose a softer paper, such as Stonehenge.

Begin by Blocking In

  • We begin by boldly shading the areas of darkest blue with a 2B pencil.
  • The whitest areas of cloud are reserved (kept paper white) with the shading of the sky brought up to the edges.
  • Areas which will be softer cirrus cloud are shaded over because the cloud will be lifted off with an eraser. 
03
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Building Darks and Lifting Lights

cloud drawing shading in pencil
H South

Shading with a sharp B pencil builds up value in the darker areas of the drawing.

  • Shade carefully up to the edges of very crisp areas of highlights.
  • Shadows in the clouds are shaded, then a kneadable eraser is used to soften the edges.
  • Once the values are well established, use sweeps of a clean kneadable eraser to lift out the wispy cirrus clouds.
04
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Refining the Details

cloud drawing in graphite pencil
H South

Eraser marks usually have a soft edge, which you can sharpen by lightly redrawing the adjacent dark values with a sharp pencil. You can also use a sharp corner of a plastic eraser to 'draw' white lines if the layer of graphite is not too thick.  

This sketch uses vigorous shading to maintain a sense of energy in the drawing. You can create a smoother, more realistic surface by shading more finely (use a slightly harder pencil like B and 3B) on a softer paper. It will also require a great deal more patience and attention to detail.

You can create a more dramatic surface by experimenting with strong, directional shading or hatching with strong contrasts. Try using a torn paper stencil to keep white areas clear when using strong, hard-to-erase marks.