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How to Draw Cumulus Clouds

Updated on August 23, 2009

Cumulus Clouds

Cumulus clouds in Derwent AquaTone watercolor pencils on cold press/Not surface watercolor paper, 4" x 6", Robert A. Sloan, photo reference by oldrockchick on
Cumulus clouds in Derwent AquaTone watercolor pencils on cold press/Not surface watercolor paper, 4" x 6", Robert A. Sloan, photo reference by oldrockchick on

#30 in 29 days! I Beat the Challenge!

#30 -- the final Hub for my challenge that started on July 25th. Tomorrow, the 24th, was the last day but I'm finishing this afternoon. Yayy! Not bad after falling behind up to 11 behind at some points earlier this month.
#30 -- the final Hub for my challenge that started on July 25th. Tomorrow, the 24th, was the last day but I'm finishing this afternoon. Yayy! Not bad after falling behind up to 11 behind at some points earlier this month.

Cumulus clouds are tough!

Cumulus clouds are the puffy white clouds you see on bright sunny days against a blue sky. They seem as if they'd be very easy to draw, except that they're not. The same category of cloud includes those impressive thunderheads that bring up storms to break up your bright sunny summer days, the shapes are similar and very dramatic.

Most people have great trouble doing cumulus clouds as anything other than "balls of cotton wool stuck to the sky." They are three dimensional shapes, complex at the top where they're puffy and flattened off at the base where they're shadowed. Modeling them accurately takes fast observation since they change shape and move away while you're drawing them.

Photo references are best for doing cumulus until you're so familiar with the shapes they take and the way shadows fall on them defining different areas that you can do them off the cuff. My example is from a photo reference posted on by a friend of mine, oldrockchick. She posted some gorgeous travel photos of a tournament she attended on a day that had splendid cumulus clouds, so I borrowed the shapes liberally for my example. These photos are posted with permission for members of WetCanvas to draw from, so join and look in the Travel Photos thread in the Oil Pastels Talk forum if you're interested in seeing them.

My first try was ghastly. I'm not even posting it here. I started out with Derwent AquaTone watercolor pencils on sketchbook paper and by the end, had to wash the cloud page to make it work at all. It came out awkward even washed, so I started over on 4" x 6" watercolor paper. 

You can use any colored pencils you like. If you don't have watercolor pencils and do want the final wash effect on your cloud painting, then use odorless turpentine substitute or Bestine rubber cement thinner with other colored pencils. I thought this version looked decent dry though, so it's your choice which texture you want on your version.

Work from a good photo reference. Take snapshots of approaching storms and any interesting clouds you see with your phone camera or digital camera. The shapes are intricate and it's all too easy to oversimplify and symbolize them instead of drawing what's there. Follow the curious outlines with your pencil in the color you're doing the sky or background and leave the light areas white till last. At dawn or sunset the light areas may be pink or gold, just treat accordingly but draw in the cool colors first.

I've exaggerated the color of the shadows to demonstrate this, for something of a greeting card look. If I wanted realism I would instead have chosen more of a dull blue-gray or used mostly black lightly with only a hint of violet and blue in the cloud shadows. Or just a blue violet with just a hint of black. Your color palette is what suits your art. Cold press has definite nubbly texture and hot press is very smooth, so if you want more detail work larger or use hot press watercolor paper.

Sketch in tonal patches, don't outline!

Initial sketch in sky blue and violet Derwent AquaTone woodless watercolor pencils.
Initial sketch in sky blue and violet Derwent AquaTone woodless watercolor pencils.

Sketch in patches of tone.

Outlines are often too easy to oversimplify. It's much more effective to start sketching patches of color beginning with the darkest shadows and working around the shapes to define them by their modeling shadows. Keep the colors simple at first if you're using colored pencil. In monochrome pencil just pay attention to values.

It may help to reduce the photo reference to black and white to see the values clearly, especially when doing monochrome cloud sketching. The shapes get very complicated and color can change how value looks -- an area of purplish shadow may be exactly the same lightness as a patch of bright blue sky but it can look darker or lighter. 

Think of cumulus clouds as three dimensional shapes something like flying blobs of shaving cream or something else fluffy. Even more than that, they get puffy and the little rounded domes sprout mini-domes almost like bubbles. They drift together and apart but their bases are likely to be flattened, so you're more seeing hemispheres connecting with each other overhead. They have depth and the best way to show it is accurate shapes of modeling shadows and highlights.

I followed my reference fairly close to use just a patch of the sky as the subject of my example. I'm satisfied with it and ready to move on to add more colors.

Toning the color

A bit of black tones the violet that I used for the underside shadows and I strengthened the sky blue a  bit, working on keeping the edges soft.
A bit of black tones the violet that I used for the underside shadows and I strengthened the sky blue a bit, working on keeping the edges soft.

Less is More

Sharpen your pencils and touch the paper very lightly to create tonal layers. Black tones down the violet some, and so does some Indigo blue which helps unify it with the sky blue. Indigo is a greenish cold blue while violet is on the other side of blue. So there's analogous color harmony in this other than the black, which does contain all three primaries in combination.

Darkening the shadows also makes the clouds more prominent, they more resemble thunderheads closing in now. But the violet is more muted, so it doesn't quite have the bright cuteness it did.

Finishing touches, rounding and softening edges

Sky shaded for realism, more colors added to shadows under clouds, some sky blue modeling on the clouds.
Sky shaded for realism, more colors added to shadows under clouds, some sky blue modeling on the clouds.

Shading and detailing, color tweaking

The last dry stage involved shading the sky dark at the top with Cobalt Blue. Carry the cobalt blue down halfway, shading lighter and lighter till it fades off. Then go over all the exposed sky areas again with sky blue to blend the cobalt layer in and strengthen the blue sky coverage till it looks good. On the cold press watercolor paper, the texture still shows as distinct white details but the heavier color improves its coherence.

Shading in from the edges of the clouds, soften them with a little sky blue used very lightly. Pick out some modeling shadows on the upper side of the clouds. Don't get overcomplicated unless it's there in the photo reference, it's as easy to overdo the complexity as underdo it. Try to think in terms of three dimensional masses and pay attention to the direction of the light.

In this drawing the light is to the right side, so the shadows never go on the right side of a mass. Shadows go on the bottom and to the left. Decide the light direction or observe it in your photo reference but that's one of the most important ways to make sure clouds look real. When you get one lit from the wrong side it completely breaks the illusion.

I also added some very dark red, Burnt Carmine, Bottle Green and other dark colors into the shadows to further mute them and change them from pure violet. 

This was done after the last bit of shading, but I decided to give it a wash just to see how it'd look with wet effects. The texture of the paper was a bit strong for its size, it would have worked better on finer grain hot press paper.

Wet Effects -- Washing the Painting

Washed with clean water and a size #8 watercolor round.
Washed with clean water and a size #8 watercolor round.

Washing Watercolor Pencil

Start with either the flat sky areas or the shadows of the clouds. Don't wash over everything all in one go. Instead wash different color areas separately.

I began with the lowest part of the sky and dropped a few dots of water into spots on my signature not wanting to dissolve the black lines. Then moved up to doing each successive sky patch while working continuously from a wet edge. The smoother your tonal layers, the easier it is to add water and wash to smoothness.

Then after that dried I went after the understides of the clouds. This is where I picked up some color and placed new lighter shadows here and there where they looked good. The violet predominated despite the other colors added to it in most places. If it's too strong, you can take a damp paper towel and blot off some of it while it's wet, then smooth it with a wet brush again and repeat a couple of times.

Last, I went back to the edges and went over them with a wet brush after everything dried so as to soften them a bit. I moved color around and lifted another peak on the small cloud to the left, which forked with one swipe of violet shadow-color and looked more interesting that way. Serendipity happens all the time in watercolor.

One of the better ways to get cumulus clouds in watercolor is to lift them out. Get the sky wash smooth, then with a wet brush swirl around on top of the shapes. Blot with a clean cloth or paper towel. Repeat till it's lightened as far as it'll go and then paint in some shadows on the shadow side and underneath. 

The best way to get comfortable with the shapes of any type of clouds is to draw them constantly. Sketch them in pen or pencil, colored pencils, oil pastels, anything you have in hand when there are clouds in the sky. Watch outside your window for oncoming storms and interesting clouds on windy days. If you sketch a lot of them, the shapes of different types of clouds will become familiar and easy.

Then the skies in your paintings will never be dull compared to the foliage, fields and trees on the ground. When the rest of the landscape is in, look for cloud shadows on the ground too. They can break up a boring foreground and put anything you want in shadow, such as front corners in order to get a dark at the corners composition.



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    • suzzycue profile image

      Susan Britton 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is great. I want to paint clouds on the under roof of my balcony and I can use some of these tips. Thanks. I will be saving this on my bookmarks on chrome.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hey I have to draw a cumulus cloud for my homework how do I draw an easy one

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      ok well im 14 and ive been drawing since i was 3 and i just dont know where to get good tools to draw where do you get watercolor colored pencils

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      That was great wish there was a way to save this page of art instructions thank you so much Cindy

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Oh that is so cool. I'd love to see it if you start a watercolor painting journal. Blog it or something, will you? It would rock. I post all the entries in mine on a My Watercolor Journal thread at in the Watercolor section, just update the same thread when I have new paintings. Thanks!

      Good luck on your last two! You were way ahead of me for most of it. I just gave it a final push yesterday and did it. Whew!

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      10 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      Well done on your hubpage challenge...I've just had one of them busy times and not had time to get back on the computer for a few days, I'm 2 hubpages away...oh well!

      Clouds are always something that I like to look at and draw, I remember one of our old art teachers saying to us all..."right, get your pencils and paper we are going out to see what's in the clouds" and we drew what we saw and it was fun coming up with different drawings based on what the clouds looked like as they moved and changed in the sky.

      You write such great art tutorials with the examples of your art and I liked the cloud formations here, I may have to start a watercolour painting journal sometime.


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