Drawing Skies and Clouds

Shortcut to Clouds

Nature has the ability to create spectacular skies. She can draw on any manner of blues, reds, yellows, oranges, white, gray and black. One time, early in the morning, while flying high over the Sahara desert, I even saw greens during the sunrise. I'm sure it had something to do with fine sand from the desert making it's way into the upper atmosphere. Unfortunately I was not able to get to my camera just then to take a photo.

Drawright1 can come close to reproducing many of the colors one sees in the sky, and we'll look at this next. After that we'll discuss clouds. Personally, I have difficulties drawing at least some cloud forms, in particular, those light fluffy cumulonimbus clouds that accent a perfect summer day. This may be a personal thing, though. I also have troubles signing my name with a mouse. Perhaps someone better with the mouse or who has a pen-like device could use a the free-hand tools along with sketches and groups to draw some pretty decent clouds.

For those like me, who find the mouse a clumsy input device, I have provided a palette of made from photographs. These are almost entirely different forms or shapes of cumulonimbus. Photos of the higher, wispier cirrus type clouds are difficult to remove the sky without removing so much of the wispiness as to ruin the cloud photo. Fortunately, these are much easier to draw with the mouse, and we'll draw a few of these.


Basic Sky

In landscape drawing, we strive to create a sense of depth. This is accomplished using a number of techniques or tricks. Here's one such trick:

The atmosphere almost always harbors a certain amount of haze, usually water. But even over the driest deserts the atmosphere contains dust, creating haze. This haze makes distant features appear both lighter and washed out.

The sky starts in the far off distance, being the most distant thing in your landscape drawing. It then stretches overhead, becoming one of the closest things in your drawing. So it should start out light at the horizon line and grow darker as it goes up in the image.

Nothing is simpler in Drawright1: Using a simple gradient fill, set the top to the blue on the top of the color panel (fully saturated bright blue), and the bottom to white. Now simply draw a rectangle.

Figure 10. Basic Sky

The ground in this image is simply a rectangle with the texture meadow_far_distant1.jpg. I like to have something in the way of a foreground to help visualize the sky.

You might think the top of the picture is to blue, and for many purposes it will be. (Although in many parts of the world the sky can get this blue, while being pure white on the horizon.) Simply use the custom color button, and dial back the red and green components until you have a nice sky blue that will work for your drawing.

Sky with Sun

I use the basic sky for nearly all my landscape drawings. I like to have the light source coming over my right shoulder. If you do that always, you always know where the light is. On the other hand, there are times when you need the sun visible in the sky.

In this case we need a little more sophisticated fill style for the sky. Start by using a gradient fill style with the radial button selected:

Figure 11. Sky Fill Style

The two colors are both custom colors with the following rgb values: The first color has a red (r) value of 225, green (g) of 225 and blue (b) of 255. The second color, r=140, g=140 and b=255. Both these colors are shades of blue, lighter than just the pure blue on the color panel.

Use this fill style and draw out a rectangle to cover the entire sky. Now to make the sun. I want an ellipse that is almost white, but just the barest hint of yellow. So make a solid fill with a custom color of r=255, g=255 and b=220. Draw a small round ellipse over the lightest spot in the sky.

This looks sort of good, but it can be made better by adding some glare around the sun. Create a new gradient fill style, again with the radial button selected. Make the center white with about 50% transparence, and the bottom light gray, completely transparent. Make sure the handles in the demo area are arranged like shown:

Figure 12. Fill Style for Creating Glare

Draw a large ellipse over the sun. Make sure the center of the sun and this ring of glare are centered on each other [you can select both and do an Align->Align Center (Horiz) then Align->Align Center(Vertical).] Using the move back button (), move the ring of glare behind the sun.

Figure 13. Basic Sky with Sun

This is still not perfect, but if clouds and a background are added it will start to look better.

In order to make a better sky with sun, I reviewed all the photos I've taken for the past 15 years. Only about three of them showed a sky with the sun in it, and in those the sky was overexposed and pretty useless. This shows that you will rarely need a sky with a sun in it. Perhaps you might need one for a special effect, such as showing a hot desert with a caravan or a wayward cowboy dying of thirst.

One Particular Sunrise

A good way to develop more interesting skies is to try and recreate some of nature's more interesting skies. When I see an interesting sky, I will often take a photo. Of course this often means getting up quite early in the morning. The photo below I took early on a misty morning.

Figure 14. Photo of an Early Morning

To recreate this, I simply used an advanced gradient fill, as shown below.

Figure 15. Early Morning Sky from Drawright1

Here's details of the fill style:

Figure 16. Early Morning Fill Style

Notice that the radial radio button is selected.

The inner most color, the one in the top color button, is pure white. The second color is a light yellow with r=255, g=245 and b=180. Use the custom color dialog and the rgb tab to set the values. For more details on using the custom color dialog look in fill style dialog help, and scroll down until you find the section on advanced gradient fills.

The third color is r=250, g=220, b=180 and the final color is r=225, g=200 and b=165.

To find what colors to use, bring the photo up in a photo editting tool and use that tool to find several color points. As always, playing around and gaining experience makes it easier to create more interesting skies.

I hope to add greater photo editting capabilities, including picking up rgb values from pixels, in Drawright1 v2.0, currently due out in July of 2014. Keep an eye on www.drawright1.com for details.

The foreground in this drawing is like the foreground in the previous drawings, but darkened because the foreground during sunrise and sunset is often quite dark. Draw the same foreground as you did for the last drawing, then selected it, copy and paste it. Take the copy and set the fill style to a solid black fill with a transparence about 50%. Line the copy up with the original. I find it's a good idea to group the two rectangles, so when I add stuff in the future and need to move it behind the foreground, it moves back nicely without getting between the darkening rectangle and the texture rectangle.

Almost forgot to mention the cloud I added to the drawing. At sunrise and sunset I often see these lens shaped clouds. They might be contrails of jets. I just used a couple of 3-point bendy lines and made a sketch of them. The fill style is solid yellow, set to some transparency that looked right. To do your own cloud, check the immediate check box and slide the transparence slider until you like the way it looks.

One Particular Sunset

Below is an interesting sunset, although these colors are not limited to evening. Just this morning the sunrise from my bedroom was a very similar color

Figure 17. Photo of an Evening Sky

The coloring here is a bit more subtle than the last one. We'll need to do a bit more work to get a close match. Notice the red/orange bar stretches all the way across, but the color also fades in a circle from the center.

And I see there's one of those lens shaped clouds in the photo!

Start by creating an advanced fill style. Notice that the linear radio button is selected:

Figure 18. Evening Sky Fill Style

The colors in this style start out dark and get lighter as they go down. While they start out bluer and get redder, it's difficult to predict how to change the settings because the bottom is brighter. For several of the color points the amount of blue actual increases:

Color 1 = 50, 65, 135
Color 2 = 185, 185, 185
Color 3 = 220, 200, 165
Color 4 = 240, 170, 85

Now, to get the subtle circular shading, we'll use an ellipse with a somewhat transparent white center fading out to a completely transparent edge. The ellipse is difficult to see in the final image, so here's a snap of it with a yellow line around it.

Figure 19. Gradient Coloring Ellipse

Notice that the bottom edge of this ellipse goes off the drawing surface. This isn't a problem, Drawright1 ignores any graphics that go off the edge.

And here's the fill style for the ellipse:

Figure 20. Gradient for the disk

color 1 = white, a bit more than 50% transparent
color 2 = white, a bit more than 75% transparent
color 3 = medium gray, completely transparent. When white is used, the edge can be seen.

More transparence means you can more easily see through the color, or that the transparence slider is more to the left. To see why, simply consider that a completely transparent color has the slider all the way to the left, and a complete opaque color has no transparence and the slider is all the way to the right.

You might think the center is a bit too white. Check the immediate check box, select the top color button and slide the transparence slider until it looks right to you.

Once you have the fill style set up, draw a nice big ellipse. You might have to draw it a bit higher than you want and then move it down to the correct position. Move the ellipse back behind the foreground. If that also moves it behind the sky, select the rectangle representing the sky and send it back behind the ellipse.

Now we need a sun to be setting. Set the fill style dialog to:

Figure 21. Evening Sun Fill Style

color 1 = 255, 210, 0, no transparence
color 2 = 255, 85, 0, completely transparent

Draw a small ellipse just on the horizon and send it back until it is behind the foreground.

Figure 22. Sunset from Drawright1


Rarely is a sky completely clear of clouds, and as artists rarely do we want it to be. A few white puffy clouds can emphasize a warm sunny day, or dark brooding can set a dark mood to the entire picture. As artist and writer of art books Eric Sloane says in his book Skies and the Artist:

    Often the nature of the sky sets the mood for the picture. Often three-fourths of the picture, particularly with landscape and seascape compositions, is sky. To be sure, the artist should know his sky.

Most if not all texts on drawing clouds start with a picture something like:

Figure 23. Types of Clouds

This particular version leaves out a couple major groups, such as "mackeral sky" clouds and a type of cloud known as lenticular.

This picture is important because knowing cloud anatomy, how clouds form and where particular clouds are located makes for a more realistic image.

The shapes and types of clouds seem bewilderingly large, and different sources use the various terms differently. But for the most part we can break them into two catagories: puffy and wispy. Puffy clouds are known as cumulus and are formed by updrafts of air, which carry moisture upward. The moisture accumulates at the top of the updraft, forming the cloud. Thus the term cumulus.

Wispy clouds are stratus. Stratus clouds form when a stable air mass cools to the point it cannot hold moisture, and the stratus clouds condense out. Keeping in mind how a cloud forms helps understand how to draw the cloud.

Several other terms: Alto means medium altitudes and cirro means high altitudes. Clouds at low altitude do not have prefix. Nimbus means a storm cloud. Stratus clouds are wispy clouds at a low altitude, altostratus clouds are wispy clouds at a high altitude, and cumulonimbus clouds are cumulus clouds that have grown into a thunder- head.

Cumulus Clouds 1

Drawright1 is delivered with a palette of clouds, which contains a combination of drawn clouds and photos. While photos might seem like cheating, they are easy and have a lot to teach us.

The first item in the clouds palette is a drawn bit of fluff that can be used as the core of a cumulus cloud. The way it was drawn is described at the end of this page. To use it, first create a nice sky and open the clouds palette. Select the first item, which is called Cumulus (Drawn), and draw out a small area, maybe half an inch by half an inch (12mm x 12mm). Now draw out a number of similar areas, starting by overlapping the first, then growing upward and sideways. Make the new areas have different sizes. Make some wider and some narrower. At the bottom of your growing cloud, make one very wide and very flat.

As you can see, using this one core, you can easily draw just about any shape of cloud. See if you can draw a thunderhead.

Cloud Perspective

This is the first time we've had reason to use the word perspective. I am planning on creating a tutorial dedicated to perspective, but it will not be ready for the release of Drawright1 v1.0 in late June of 2011, but I'll be updating the online tutorials as material becomes ready. Keep an eye on the tutorials section or news section at www.drawright1.com.

So for now, a quick explaination will have to do. Imagine you are standing on a train track stretching across a flat plain. The rails will appear to converge at a point on the horizon. Also the rails will appear to become thinner, and the ties between the rails will appear to become smaller.

Now imagine two jet planes fly over side by side. The contrails of the jets will also converge at a point on the horizon. Clouds further away need to be drawn smaller, closer together and closer to the ground.

Figure 24. Cloud Perspective

This image shows something else about using clouds from the palette: If you repeat one cloud over and over, it's really obvious. There are several cumulus clouds in the palette, and it's a good idea to vary them. It's also a good idea to make them different sizes and to flip a few horizontally, using the rotate dialog

Groups of Cumulus

Cumulus clouds are often created by stationary updrafts. The updraft might be caused by a warm lake on a cool day, or many other things. The updraft causes a cloud to form, but then the wind blows the cloud the off the top of the updraft. Then another cloud forms. As the wind keeps blowing, new clouds keep forming in a line. A line like this is sometimes called a "cloud street".

Figure 25. A "Cloud Street"

What is often more common than a single cloud street is bunches of them. This often happens the day after a cold front comes through. The air is cool and clear. The sun can shine down and warm up bodies of water, fields, buildings and all manner of things to create multiple streets. This causes the sky to fill with clouds in what the afore mentioned Eric Sloane called a "sheep herd" of clouds.

Figure 26. A Cloud "Sheep Herd"

If the sun is behind one of the clouds, you often see a beautiful rainbow-like effect. When I was growing up, my family used to call this a sun-dog, but when I looked it up on wikipedia, wikipedia used that name for a different effect involving ice crystals high in the atmosphere. If anyone reading this knows the proper name for what I'm talking about, let me know on my blog at www.drawright1.com.

Let's do this one as an exercise. First off, it's easier with a smaller canvas, so use the new drawing button () to create a new drawing. In the new project dialog, set the height to 280 and the width to 360.

Draw the ground first because that's easiest. Use a gradient fill and set the bottom to dark green. For the top color, use the custom color dialog, and the RGB tab. Move the red and blue sliders down to 0, then watching the fill style in the dialog, move the green slider down until the glow-in-the-dark radioactive effect goes away. Press the OK button on the custom dialog, and draw a rectangle from the bottom of the image up about 1/3 of the way. Line styles should be set to "no line".

Now drawing the sky is a bit more interesting. Using the advanced fill, select the radial fill radio button. Move the top handle in the demo area to about the middle. Select the top color button and set it to white. Place the bottom handle directly underneath the top, and set the bottom color to blue. Draw a rectangle from the top of the drawing down until it meets the ground.

This does not look very sky-like, but it will when we're done. Select the sky rectangle, copy and paste it. Now in the fill style dialog, use the gradient tab (not the advanced gradient tab). Set the top handle to the middle of the demo area (it should be there already), and make it white, but completely transparent. Make the bottom handle white, and a bit less than half transparent. Apply to the rectangle. Make sure the rectangle is placed exactly over the sky rectangle. It should look a bit more sky-like now. You might check the immediate checkbox on the fill style dialog, and move the handles and transparence sliders around to get the best looking sky you can.

Before you go much further, you might want to select the sky and the shading rectangle and group them. It could make life easier in the future if you want to make changes.

Now to draw those pesky clouds. Open up the clouds palette. The cumulus clouds are the first five or so. Select them in random order and drag out tiny clouds close to the horizon, three or four of them anyway. To make the clouds look different from each other, you can flip some horizontally and change the aspect ratio (make some narrower). Once you have three or four, group them, then copy and paste the group. Line up the new group with the old. You can try flipping the new group horizontally to try and break things up, but it could end up looking like a mirror image of the first. Paste the group of clouds enough times to make a back row across the drawing.

Now do the same thing with a different set of clouds, a bit higher in the picture and make the clouds a bit bigger. It's a good idea to make some clouds go off the right and left sides. After all, if this were a photo, clouds would be sticking off the end.

Keep repeating the process until the sky is full of clouds.

Now comes the fun part. Using the gradient fill of the fill style dialog, set the left handle in the middle, set the color to yellow, but make it almost entirely transparent, about 7/8 transparence. Just a little color goes a long way in this drawing. Set the right handle directly to the right of the left handle, at the edge of the rectangle in the demo area. Make it white, with about the same amount of transparence.

Now with the closed polygon tool, draw a series of four-sided polygons in a fan shape around the cloud closest to the white spot in the sky. The fan should start out horizontally, move down around the cloud, then up to horizontal again. Make sure the tips of the fan overlap the cloud. Make sure to leave gaps between each polygon.

Go back to the fill style dialog and make the left handle blue, with the same amount of transparence. Use the closed polygon tool to draw in polygons to fill the gaps between the yellow polygons. Group all the polygons, then click the send back button () multiple times until the cloud behind the center of the fan moves in front of it.

Copy and paste the fan, and move it so the center is just above the cloud that is at the center of the original fan. Move the new fan back until it is behind all the clouds above, but not behind the clouds on the same level as the original cloud.

Figure 27. Not a "Sun Dog"

As always, I encourage you to play around with these techniques. You should pretty quickly be able to make far better than I can.

Drawing Stratus Clouds

Unlike cumulus clouds, stratus clouds are rather difficult to photograph. The problem is that the wispiness blends into the sky, making it impossible to remove the sky without removing the wispiness. Once you do that, the cloud no longer looks like a stratus cloud, but instead looks like a cumulous cloud. But fortunately, wispy clouds are easy to draw in Drawright1.

To understand how, we need to understand what wispiness actually is. As stated above, a wispy cloud blends with the background. It does so with thin transparent filaments. But there are many many filaments woven together in very complex ways. How can we create that complexity?

When trying to create complexity, copy and paste is your friend. Start by making a nice sky. Add to the sky a four point bendy line that is one pixel thick, white and so transparent you can barely see it. (Make sure the snap-to-grid is turned off.)

Figure 28. Starting a High Wispy Cloud

Copy and paste the bendy line, and place the copy so it is almost, but not quite touching the first. Select both bendy lines and group them. Copy the group and place the copy close to the original group. Select them both and copy. Keep doing this and a cloud-like image will start to emerge.

Figure 29. Continuing a High Wispy Cloud

Experiment with where to place copies. Sometimes make the copy touch the original, sometimes make it overlap. Sometimes place the copy further forward, sometimes make the edges line up. After doing this eight or ten times, do not make and copy new groups, but keep adding the same copy back in.

Figure 30. A High Wispy Cloud with a Good Start

If you look at the stratus clouds in the clouds palette, this is how they were made. Make several different clouds starting with different shapes. You'll find that you will never make the same cloud twice. That's good, because Nature never makes the same cloud twice, either.

Here's one that started with another shape:

Figure 31. Starting Another High Wispy Cloud

This is a three point bendy line with a straight line. Someone better at the mouse than I am, or who has a pen-like input device, could use the open free-hand tool to make better shapes.

Figure 32 and 33. Developing Another High Wispy Cloud

Sometimes when making complex graphics like this, the graphic starts using a lot of memory. This makes drawright1 run slowly and can even lead to out of memory errors. Take the complex graphic, copy and paste it into another drawright1 session, set the background to completely transparent (using file->modify), and save the graphic as a .png image using file->save as image->png. Delete the graphic from the original, and pull in the .png file. That should take care of the problem. That trick can be used with any graphic, not just clouds.

Now you make some cirrostratus clouds.

Cumulus Clouds 2

Drawing cumulus clouds with drawright1 is fun and easy. The method is similar to creating stratus clouds, but instead of lines, use a small white dot, as small as you can get, solid white, but almost completely transparent. Copy the dot and use the arrow keys to move the copy close to the original. Group and copy, group and copy. Eventually a puffy white blob starts to emerge. At that point it's handy to place the blob in the scratch palette, then use that to develop the cloud.

Figure 34. A Cumulus Cloud

The gray bottom was made with a dark gray dot instead of a white dot.

The clouds palette contains streaks for creating stratus clouds, and blobs for creating cumulus clouds. I saved these as .png images with transparent backgrounds to use less memory.

Practicing and making interesting looking skies is a lot of fun. It helps to google for pictures of clouds to see what real clouds look like as you practice.

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