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 PENCIL TECHNIQUES - 3 -  Clouds and Skies

This topic was originally written 5 years ago ( in 2010 ) when my main need was to try to cover the use of wax type pencils to work a sky background.  Since that time I have been teaching students to use Watercolour pencils for skies and clouds - much easier, much quicker and much more effective.   Firstly I will go back to that original topic and cover the use of non-soluble pencils ( wax or oil based ) to undertake the task.  I will then go on to look at skies using watercolour pencils.

Firstly using wax or oil based pencils

One problem with Coloured Pencil is the fact that it is a ‘linear’ medium –

that is, it is designed to produce a line, and a line is not always what you want.  

One technique used to get around the fact that you don’t always want a line, is to transfer colour from the pencil to the paper by means of an intermediary. This is a good way of doing skies, smooth water and out-of-focus backgrounds as it avoids getting the pencil point into the critical  area.

This method relies on you making up a 'paint box'  or palette, on fairly rough watercolour paper by working an area or areas of very strong colour from your pencils.  The paper needs to have a good tooth so that you get a thick layer of pigment to work with.
With a piece of white felt or similar fabric, you transfer pigment from the 'palette' to the felt and then gently rub the felt over the paper.   This transfers a thin layer of pigment on to the paper.  The darker the colour the more obvious the transfer, with lighter colours you may need several coats.  I used a Polychromos Ultramarine for the sky in the example (above) which went down with a relatively light result.  I then refined the detail with a Light Ultramarine pencil which was very close to the resultant transferred pigment and blended well.
Because you have not impressed the pigment into the paper in any way, you can lift it off easily with an eraser to show woolly white tops to clouds.  You can also re-work clouds if your first efforts have not left them big enough.
By using white felt you can ensure that if you use it for another colour, you don't get the wrong colour transferred and a green patch (say) in the sky.  I have a piece of felt which already has quite an area of blue on it and it works better and better all the time.   Ideally the felt needs to be reasonably substantial,  a thin piece will break up more quickly with rubbing.  I have found an ideal source in the felt pad to a replacement ironing board cover. This was shortened to fit the board and the piece left over found a good home.
This technique is also good for backgrounds where the area behind the main subject needs to be out of focus.   If you do this blurred area first, you can erase up to the edge of the subject and then work your detail.
If you are working with a soft surfaced paper, like Stonehenge or Canaletto Liscio, the surface can be lifted slightly by the rubbing action, so more care will be needed. 

It isn't usually a problem with ordinary HP watercolour papers like the Fabriano as they have quite a hard resistant surface.  If the surface does start to lift, then a burnish with a white pencil can often apply ‘first aid’.

If you are erasing surplus pigment from the surface, always work with a clean eraser and from ‘within’ the area you will want to apply detail to.  For fine work, it is best to use a battery eraser as these have a narrow point and can be more accurate.  They cost very little – under £5 - and run on two AAA batteries.  They can be bought via mail order from several sources including the SAA.

Blurred Backgrounds in general are now covered in a separate section which follows.

  Clear sky - darker blue above              Cloudy sky  - sun behind them lighting tops

Layers of cloud

They  form narrower and narrower bands as they

come down towards the horizon

There is a huge range of colours in clouds, and the most impressive skies often have very little blue sky,  

Dark cloudy skies with lots of purples and greys also provide a sharp contrast to sunlit areas of landscape

These two sky shots show also how the blue of the sky is so much deeper above and fades back to a light blue nearer the horizon

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Using watercolour pencils

The whole task become easier, quicker, but more random - you did like a bit of excitement, didn’t you ?

If you are using stretched Hot Pressed watercolour paper of around 300gsm (140lb) weight, then the operation is simply one of getting the paper thoroughly wet in the sky area.  We don’t need to worry about overlapping distant land with blue sky as the blue pigment will not be strong and it will provide a good distant blue underpainting for the far parts of the landscape.

If we are starting from scratch and don’t want to stretch paper, then I recommend using a heavier weight paper ( 425gsm or 200lb)  which will take the water treatment without buckling.   You will need a piece of rough watercolour paper to act as a palette and hold the dry pigment.  

Firstly lay down a substantial layer of clean water over the sky area of your paper and let the paper absorb some of this water for a few seconds.  Check that there is still a glisten of water visible on the surface and then pick up a dab of Ultramarine Blue from your palette.  I find Ultramarine Blue the best of the blues for this, but obviously skies around the world in different climates differ, so you may need to practice.  Bear in mind that the darkest blue sky will be overhead and the sky on the horizon will be much paler blue ( see below ).

I usually tilt and play with the bits of blue with the tip of a small brush and let the water on the paper surface work it’s magic in moving it about.  See the example below

The Blue of Skies

Remember to graduate the colour of your skies.

The density of blue in the clear unclouded sky changes from a deeper blue overhead where there is little dust in the atmosphere, to a pale blue as the sky is seen near the horizon and where dust particles obscure the colour.  This is also known as Aerial Perspective, where the dust reduces the crisp definition of distant scenery and also cuts down the depth of warm colours seen at a distance.  


Make sure that your clouds reflect the direction and position of the sunlight  ( if any ).

The opposite side of a cloud to the sun will have shadowed areas - usually below centre unless the sky is an evening one, in which case your clouds may be in direct shadow of sun behind them.

Look at clouds and skies and look at these photos.

I have encouraged the blue to travel across the paper in lines. Some areas are darker than others and at some point, later in the development of the picture, I will work some of that same blue pencil dry, to intensify one or two areas of sky and also work some warm grey shading into the cloud bases. In this picture a lot of the sky will be covered by tree foliage so I will do the branches and leaves first and tinker with whatever sky is left at the end

Here are one or two more watercolour pencil skies

Latest revision August 2015

As you can see in the finished picture ( above) you can’t see a lot of blue sky through the trees, but you are aware that they are there



using Watercolour

and Wax type pencils