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How to Draw Desert Scenery

By Lauren Bailey
Key features of American deserts are cacti.

The desert is one of the most iconic images of the natural world. Deserts invoke awe, fear and wonder. They are varied across the world, from the clay deserts of Arizona to the shifting dunes of the Sahara. In art, it is fairly simple to draw a desert, no matter what type you are trying to depict. In an American desert, cacti and rock spires make for quick additions. In the Sahara, a string of camels might add some interest.

American Desert

Draw a horizontal line 1/3 from the bottom of the page.

Notice how these desert mountains are isolated and small.

Add rocky-looking mountains along the horizon line. These will not have trees or greenery on them. Try to make them relatively low to the ground and isolated -- not like a range of mountains. Allow a sort of window looking out into the sky between the mountains.

This is a perfect example of the table-top rock formation and to the right, the rock spire.

Draw another, larger rock formation in a more table-top shape behind the initial row of mountains that takes up part of that "window" space. Think about the photos of national parks with rectangular-shaped rock mountains. You also could draw rock spires here.

Cacti are easy to draw and immediately indicate a desert.

Draw cacti in the foreground. Remember, the closer to the viewer, the larger the cactus. Try drawing three -- one closest to the viewer and therefore largest, one in the middle of the foreground and one closer to the line of mountains. They should be three different sizes.

Notice the colors of the desert sky at sunset.

Draw the sky. If it is daytime, your sky should be perfectly blue and bright. If the sun is setting, the sky will be as orange as the landscape and have more variation in hue. You also can draw the scene in a way that the sky is full of brilliant oranges, pinks and yellows, and the mountains and cacti are virtually black against the sky. this is usually after the sun has already set but the sky retains color.

Make the ground an orange clay color if drawing in color. Add cracks to make the earth appear parched. Make the first row of mountains brown rock and the mountain in the far background a more hazy orange since it is farther away. (See Reference 1 for entire section.)

Sahara Desert

Notice the uneven horizon line.

Draw your horizon line 1/3 from the top of the paper. It does not have to be perfectly straight, since the dunes will make it wavy.

The dunes in the foreground appear larger than those in the background.

Draw the dunes like very soft and flowing mountain ranges. The rows of dunes will be closer together in the back and appear larger and farther apart in the foreground of the picture.

In this photo, the light is coming from the right since the shadows are casting left.

Add shadows depending on the location of the light source. If the sun is where the viewer is, the shadows will be cast away from the viewer. f the sun is on the horizon, the shadows will be cast toward the viewer. If the sun is directly above, the shadows will go to the left or right, depending on the shape of the dune.

Color the dunes depending on the time of day and weather conditions. If it is high noon, the sky probably will be bright blue and the sand may be light beige. If it is near dusk, the sky will be infused with yellow and orange. The sand should be an orange or red hue with dark shadows.
If you are trying to indicate some wind, make the blue sky right above the horizon a fuzzy blue-yellow. This will make it seem as though the sand is being stirred up into the air.

Add a string of camels or a palm spring to add some variation and interest to your drawing.

Tip

For help with drawing in perspective, knowing where shadows should fall or any other specific techniques, pick up a comprehensive art book such as "The Fundamentals of Drawing: A Complete Professional Course for Artists" by Barrington Barber. (See Reference 2.)

About the Author

Lauren Bailey began her professional career in 2010, when she became a reporter for the "Charlotte Observer." She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and journalism with a minor in creative writing.