Sketch the Dunes

Park ranger holding a color sketch of the dunes, with the dunes and snowcapped mountain in the background
Follow along with Ranger Patrick as he shows you step by step how to make your own simple dune sketch!



Make Your own Simple Sketch of a Dune!

Sketching dunes can be a freeing experience for artists of every ability level. Unlike a portrait, where the features have to line up in proportion to look right, you can let your hand be like the wind when drawing a dune. It's a unique way to connect with the dunes and their formation.

If we just take a quick photo of the dunes, we sometimes miss noticing the subtle things that reveal more about them. By slowing down, allowing our eyes to look closer and our hand to form the dunes' beautiful curving shapes, we can experience the way they have been sculpted by wind.

Below is the photo we'll work from, and step-by-step photos to help you make your own simple sketch. For materials, you'll just need paper and some colored chalks or pastels. Feel free to use charcoal instead for a black and white sketch.

Remember, we're not trying to make super-realistic images - we have photography for that. Sketching is a way to creatively express and connect with the essence of something you care about. Let's begin!

Dune with warm late afternoon sun and shadows
Here's our photo we will use.  This is intentionally simple, with no trees, water, or mountains.

First, as you look at these dune shapes - can you tell which is the predominate wind direction?  It's left to right, or southwest to northeast.  Sand has been carried by the wind from the valley floor toward a low, curved pocket of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  It bounces up the sunlit side of these dunes, then gently avalanches down the shadowed slipface side.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Line Drawing of Dunes
Starting with a simple line drawing can help with basic layout and angles of ridges.  Let your hand flow with a pencil or chalk.  Avoid parallel lines - the dunes undulate like ocean waves.  There are some straight lines, however, where slipfaces descend.  If a line doesn't look right, it's easy to erase and try again.  Remember, dunes slowly change over time, so don't worry about getting your lines in the exact right place.  The beautiful curve of each line is more important.
Step 2 of Dunes Sketch - Golden Color
Once your line drawing is complete, use the sides of pastel sticks or chalks to lay in a basic golden tone for the dunes, and blue for the sky.
Step 2 of Dunes Sketch - Grey Shadows
Looking closely at our source photo, lay in a soft grey color where you see shadows in the photo.  Most of the time now it's best to use the broad sides of a chalk or pastel, rather than drawing more lines.  Twist and turn the side of the chalk along the edges of your curved lines, working to maintain their undulating curves.
Step 4 of Dunes Sketch - Add More Colors
At this stage, start to vary your colors more.  Layer on different tones of gold, peach, pink and tan in the sunlit areas, and gently layer blues and purples into the greys of the shadows.  We have to squint in this intense high-elevation light: warm colors glow brightly, and the blue of the sky is reflected in shadows.  Don't just use tan and grey.  You can use your fingers to help blend the colors as needed, using the same flowing motions as the wind.
Step 5 of Dunes Sketch - Final Done
In this final stage, continue to layer in colors without making them too dark.  If needed, use an eraser or cloth to make linear highlights in the sunlit areas, or to lighten shadows. Shadows have a bluish tint in warm afternoon sunlight.  Layer in some darker blue at the top of the sky. 

These are suggested steps to create a simple dunes sketch, but art is individual! Use color and strokes as you wish, whether bold or subtle.  There's no right or wrong way to express yourself in art!

NPS/Patrick Myers

Last updated: May 1, 2020

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