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How to draw and paint skies - Page 2 of 2 - Draw Like A Pro

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How to draw and paint skies

Tips for drawing clouds

Fine-weather clouds

We are all of us familiar with the fine-weather cloud beloved of children’s drawings and putting us in mind of sheep crossing the blue background of the sky. When we think of a cloud this is the shape, symbolised in the drawing here, which often springs spontaneously to mind.

These clouds belong to the cumulus family. This is a large group but for the moment we are interested solely in the ordinary cumulus, a cloud with the singular merit of moving slowly and keeping its shape for a fairly long time! It tends to be flat at the bottom with moderately cauliflower-shaped top and sides.

Now is the time to make an important observation. Can you guess what it is? The further away the cumulus clouds, the more you see them in profile; the nearer they are, the more you see them from below. In your drawing the most distant clouds will be the lowest and the ones nearest to you will be the highest on your sheet. As we have seen, cumulus clouds tend to be fairly regular in size and shape.

So the more remote cumulus clouds will be small but with a flat lower line. The ones nearer to you will be more jagged since you see their perimeter and not their profile. Another thing: the distant clouds will overlap whereas those closer to you will stand out separately against the background of the sky.

Make a point of remembering this principle. It is the key to producing realistic cumulus skies.
Cumulus clouds can also climb very high in the sky. Try to convey the idea that clouds are really mini-explosions and always in a state of ferment. If you look at them through binoculars you will see how they develop, coil and lose their shape under the impact of convection.

You shouldn’t liken a cloud to shaving cream spreading down from the top towards the sides, but to a sort of upward explosion accompanied by sudden and uncontrolled inward and outward coiling movements.

Your pencil must convey this vertically expanding chaos. When the cumulus climbs very high in the sky, in stormy weather, it sometimes becomes enormous. It grows dark at its base while it no longer develops vertically at the top but spreads out like an anvil in the sky. This is because the upper part of the cloud has run up against a layer of very cold air which stops it from rising any higher. It is therefore forced to spread out and in the process changes its name to cumulonimbus.

The cumulonimbus is a fearsome cloud, the harbinger of violent storms and heavy downpours. It can climb as high as 3 km and will take up much of the space available on your sheet of paper. The particles of water moving from bottom to top can be charged with ice and darken the cloud considerably. Cumulonimbus clouds are so thick that the light is almost interrupted. The cloud throws a dark shadow on the ground, contrasting sharply with the surrounding light falling directly on the ground. Dark sheets of rain are clearly visible.

Few other clouds surround the spectacular cumulonimbus when it is in full cry. It is in fact often on its own which means that special care must be taken in drawing and positioning it, because it will take up the lion’s share in a skyscape. The light will be more contrasted than with other kinds of cloud so you will make the dark parts darker than you would with cumulus clouds, often even darker than the surrounding countryside. This will do even greater justice to the dramatic, violent aspect of your drawing.

Keep in mind that this sort of sky is inevitably accompanied by wind: your trees will be storm-tossed and the vegetation in the foreground slightly flattened by the wind.

In fine weather, this often fleeting mackerel sky is exceedingly effective as it gives a sense of perspective which is rather attractive in a skyscape. These little clouds situated high in the sky go under the name of altocumulus.

The stratus sky

Stratus clouds tend to stretch out in thin layers rather than “bubble up” like the cumulus. They sometimes form a true ceiling giving a single colour which is nevertheless more subdued than the blue of a clear sky. These layers can sometimes spread out in immense expanses through which the sun has little chance of penetrating. These are the typical clouds of dull, overcast weather, especially when the stratus are piled one on top of another in successive blankets. A few veils even lower down can sometimes make a stratus sky almost black.

Stratus clouds do not produce particularly wild or agitated skies but they can nevertheless give some impressive blends of grey. In clear weather they can be an interesting proposition for your drawing. Similarly, the light effect can be very pleasing when the sun illuminates the thickness of these layers of clouds.

But the switch from fair to good weather does not take place all of a sudden. The temperature of the air changes and under the influence of the air currents between the fields of pressure, the cloud layers begin to move, to split and break up to form the sort of cloudy sky one sees after a storm. The stratus then regroup as separate and more voluminous clouds, with the sun’s rays passing between them and the sky becoming once again highly contrasted.
This is a very attractive sky to draw.

Cirrus clouds

This high-altitude cloud (up to 10 km) is composed of narrow bands or patches of thin, generally white, fleecy parts against the blue background of the sky. It is perhaps not such an interesting proposition for the artist inasmuch as it is lacking those structures which help to give substance to a drawing. On the other hand, it is ideal for beginners as they can “fill up” their sky with a few light strokes of the pencil. There are no rules to follow.
Cirrus clouds sometimes resemble the sort of mark left behind by a broad, dry paintbrush.

Cirrus clouds sometimes resemble the mark left by a broad and dry paintbrush, indeed the sort of brush you can use to render certain cirrus effects in a wash or pen drawing. With pencil drawings, use a thin lead and trace the filaments by turning the pencils.

We all know that people are impressed and attracted by sunsets but it is easy to fall into the trap of the picture postcard. However, there is no reason why you shouldn’t practise reproducing some of these effects for “documentary” purposes, as it were, or so that you can get used to drawing those luminous beams which sometimes filter through the clouds.

But remember that the real interest and spectacle of a sunset is usually to be found opposite the setting sun. At this time of day, the light is almost oblique, the scene is bathed in a golden hue and the contrasts are very pronounced. In the space of a few minutes, you will drink your fill of visual souvenirs. This is the favourite time of day for photographers, and you too should make a point of memorising the values incorporated in these special effects or making a rough sketch of them.

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