Drawing for Beginners - Understanding Light and Shade in your Drawing 

Learning about using light and dark to make your drawings look more realistic

Learning about using light and dark to make your drawings look more realistic

Easy drawing for beginners…

Helping you understand the concepts of light and shade in art and ideas for how to show them in your drawings.

The objective of this drawing lesson is to learn to work on the detail of your drawings and start making confident marks on your page to show how shadows and light help to depict the form in your drawings.

This is important if you want to give any sense of volume or depth to what you draw so that it does not appear just perfectly flat on your page.

Shading (light/shade) is what makes a flat circle into a solid orange!.

It’s also a really great way of getting the unique way that you ‘see’ things into your art and to start developing your own drawing style.

Learning this will also help to increase your confidence in your drawing skills…

Understanding light and shade drawing for beginners

We’ve already practised the basics by learning to see shapes when we make our drawings and how to measure for more accurate drawings.

In this lesson, we will start with just finding out what the idea of light and shade is about in art and drawing terms – and we will do this, once again, by looking…

Exploring the shadows on a fruit with graphite sticks

Exploring the shadows on a fruit with graphite sticks

Are you tired, yet, of hearing me say that most of art is just looking? It’s looking and it’s then deciding how you are going to show what you see on your page.

Let’s look together at a crinkly-shaped item such as a holly leaf and a rounded fruit or vegetable such as an apple or tomato. It’s best to find one of these, if you can, so that you can have it in front of you. If not, some other leaf will do, and any other fruit or veg.

It can help to start to understand light and shade if you emphasise the contrast between light and dark to start with – so in a dim area, light both items up from one side to accentuate the shadows as best you can…

Rounded and smooth fruit - the bottom and left-hand side is in shadow and there is a spot of light on the right (a highlight). There is also a shadow beneath and to the left of the fruit. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page)

Rounded and smooth fruit - the bottom and left-hand side is in shadow and there is a spot of light on the right (a highlight). There is also a shadow beneath and to the left of the fruit. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page)

Smooth spiky leaf with an undulating shape - the shadows form on the left-hand side of each part of the leaf with the right-hand side of each part in bright light. The shadow also forms beneath and to the left of the leaf. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

Smooth spiky leaf with an undulating shape - the shadows form on the left-hand side of each part of the leaf with the right-hand side of each part in bright light. The shadow also forms beneath and to the left of the leaf. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

What can you see?

I expect that you will see areas of shadow and dark on each item.

  • Look at the shapes made by the shadows (the shadows actually on the items, not the shadows cast by them).

  • Look at the shapes created by any lighter areas (areas of ‘highlights’).

  • Look, also, at the shadows on the surface, cast by the objects, and note where these fall.

Do these tell you anything about the form and the volume of the item?

What is form and volume?

The form is its 3D shape – how big or ‘voluminous’ it is and what specific shape it is, too.

Looking at the tomato, we see how the light and shaded areas show us that it has a solid round (spherical) shape. We understand that it’s a solid, 3D object and not a flat circle because we intuitively understand the way the light and shadows fall on it and around it.

This is a solid sphere and not a flat circle. How do we know? By seeing the shadows and light on it and around it. Click the image to get it to draw (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

This is a solid sphere and not a flat circle. How do we know? By seeing the shadows and light on it and around it. Click the image to get it to draw (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

Is it flat or not?

In comparison, if you looked at a flat piece of drawing paper, you’d see that it does not have areas of light and dark (unless something else casts shadow or light on it or you hold it above the surface so that it casts a shadow) so we know it is flat (2D). If you fold it, you will quickly see how the shadows start to be created and show us that it’s now starting to have a 3D shape.

It’s the shadows that let us know that this piece of paper now has a 3D shape. They tell us about the corners and edges and we understand that this paper is no longer flat.

It’s the shadows that let us know that this piece of paper now has a 3D shape. They tell us about the corners and edges and we understand that this paper is no longer flat.

The holly leaf, too, is fairly flat (see below) – but it does have a 3D shape to it, a form. That’s why we can see areas of light and shadow on the leaf.

The shadows help us to understand the 3D form of the leaf. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

The shadows help us to understand the 3D form of the leaf. Click the image to access it to practice drawing it (see exercise at the bottom of the page).

For whatever you’re looking at, ask yourself:

  • Where is it light and where is it dark?

  • How light is it?

  • How dark is it?

  • Are the light and dark areas distinct and hard-edged? Or do they blend ever-so gradually, one into the other?

Drawing the light and dark areas that you see will help you to portray this same sense of 3D in your drawing. It’s as simple as looking at the parts that are light or dark and drawing light and dark areas on your drawing too - it’s all about learning to look for the shadows!

Once we’ve decided that we want to use these areas of light and shadow to help us depict our object in our drawing, we need to decide how we’re going to do this. How are we going to try and show this 3D object on a flat piece of paper with areas of light and dark?

How to show form and volume in your drawing with light and shade

I’m going to show you a few ideas for how to add areas of darker shading onto your drawing to show the form of the object. Please remember, there is no specifically right or wrong way to do this. So experiment a little to find YOUR way and see what suits you. This is how you quickly develop your own unique style of drawing.

There are a few ways we can add ‘shading’ to the drawing, depending on the tools we want to use and the techniques that we might like to try…

Start Shading

Start experimenting with ways to make areas lighter and darker (you can just do this at random on a piece of paper to start with, if you’d like to practice the techniques).

One of my favourite ways to start showing shade and dark areas in your drawing (and the easiest, in my opinion) is shading with a pencil. We can try using the pencil on its side and move it from side to side to shade an area…

o   Try your pencil freshly sharpened and try it blunted a little when the nib is softer. Try holding your pencil at different angles and experiment with pressing harder and then softer to see what happens.

Hold your pencil at different angles and press more lightly or more softly to get different effects

Hold your pencil at different angles and press more lightly or more softly to get different effects

o   If you have a soft pencil (B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B and higher) you can use this shading technique to create beautifully soft and grainy shaded areas in increasingly darker tones. If you have these pencils, try out as many of the range as you have and see how that looks. Which pencil creates the darkest shadows? Which creates the lightest areas?

See my Introduction to materials and understanding drawing pencils if you’ve not already looked at this, or if you’d like a refresher about drawing materials and particularly the darkness/lightness (softness/hardness) of pencils.

Pressing harder and softer with 6B and 9B pencils - you can get some really dark shading in your drawings with these really soft, dark pencils.

Pressing harder and softer with 6B and 9B pencils - you can get some really dark shading in your drawings with these really soft, dark pencils.

You could also try this technique with one of your ‘H’ range of hard pencils and see if you like the effect. The image below shows my shading experiment with a fairly sharp 3H pencil. Perhaps you could use this for some of the lighter areas in a drawing?

Shading experiments with a ‘light’ 3H pencil. Not really very useful for shadows but could give a nice texture for mid-tones and lighter-tones in your drawings.

Shading experiments with a ‘light’ 3H pencil. Not really very useful for shadows but could give a nice texture for mid-tones and lighter-tones in your drawings.

If you enjoy this technique, I recommend buying a full set of H- and B-range pencils so that you can explore the shading technique further and start to really play and experiment with how light or dark each pencil makes your drawing. Interesting drawings have a good combination of light, medium and dark areas.

TOP TIP: Lay a piece of kitchen towel or a piece of scrap paper under your hand as you draw to save from smudging your drawing – keep checking it!

If you like the shading technique with soft pencils, you could also consider moving onto charcoals or pastels for your drawing, in the future.

Lighter areas and highlights can also be picked out with erasing away your pencil shading very carefully with the corner of a quality eraser, perhaps a kneadable eraser – or look out for a specialist art masking pen to keep areas of your artwork white (you peel away the masking at the end to reveal the pristine page beneath, just like masking tape for decorating).

With a pen or your normal drawing pencil, you can also try the following drawing ideas using lines and marks to show darkness, light and shade:

Stand back a bit and squint and see if the different areas look lighter or darker…

o   Pressing harder or softer (below)

You can get your lines to look a little darker just by pressing a little harder with a pen (top) or pencil (bottom).

You can get your lines to look a little darker just by pressing a little harder with a pen (top) or pencil (bottom).

o   Lines closer together or further apart (below)

Lines closer together look darker - with pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

Lines closer together look darker - with pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

o   Dots or squiggles closer together or further apart (below)

Dots, squiggles, stipples, or speckles, can be used for a nice texture in your drawing. Putting them closer together can make the area look darker - pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

Dots, squiggles, stipples, or speckles, can be used for a nice texture in your drawing. Putting them closer together can make the area look darker - pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

o   Scribbles or sketchy marks closer together or further apart (below). You can see how I used my own sketchy marks to show shadows, in my pen drawing for the exercise at the bottom of the page.

Sketchy lines or scribbles are a nice loose way of drawing and adding light/shade to your drawing. You can adapt them really easily to your own style of drawing (see what comes out naturally). Closer scribbles make a darker area - pen (left) and pencil (right).

Sketchy lines or scribbles are a nice loose way of drawing and adding light/shade to your drawing. You can adapt them really easily to your own style of drawing (see what comes out naturally). Closer scribbles make a darker area - pen (left) and pencil (right).

o   Cross-hatching closer together or further apart (below)

Cross-hatches were very often used in traditional drawings. Making your cross-hatching tighter makes it look darker. Pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

Cross-hatches were very often used in traditional drawings. Making your cross-hatching tighter makes it look darker. Pen (top) and pencil (bottom).

What feels good to you? What do you like the look of?

Have you got your own way of doing things? With practice, many artists naturally develop their own way of making marks and denoting light and shade, evolving their own natural ‘handwriting’ style in their drawing, simply by virtue of having done it so often. Drawing styles evolve and change as we do, so decide to make a start with some technique that quite appeals and see where you want to go from there.

We can also use light and dark colours for this aspect of a drawing, too, in just the same way, when you’re ready to introduce colours into your art. This does make it considerably easier to show light and dark… but having these techniques are very helpful too, for sketches and black-and-white drawings or to add more definition to a colour drawing.

Time to practice

Try a drawing of your holly leaf, fruit, or something else. Try to create a sense of form by using light and dark to add detail to your drawing. Remember to use your light source to one side to help you make the light and dark areas more distinct and easy to see.

  • You can use the photos at the top of the page if you like (click on those images to access the photos to download for practice).

My own drawings from the photos are below with some comments to start you thinking about how you might like to approach your own drawings.

Draw the outline, then where you see dark areas on your leaf or fruit, add dark shading or other lines/marks. Decide how dark you’re going to make your shading for that area and what medium and technique you’d like to use.

Don’t forget to also include the dark shadow cast by what you’re drawing, onto the surface.

Tomato drawn using a 2B pencil to show areas of light and shadow.

Tomato drawn using a 2B pencil to show areas of light and shadow.

Above: Tomato drawn using a 2B pencil to show areas of light and shadow.

  • Start by drawing a simple circle roughly with a sketching motion.

  • Then start adding in areas of shadow by using your pencil on its side in a shading technique.

  • In some areas I’ve pressed harder to make the darker shadows.

Holly leaf drawn with a 6B pencil to show light and shade.

Holly leaf drawn with a 6B pencil to show light and shade.

Above: A drawing of a holly leaf with a 6B pencil (very soft pencil). Look at the different ways in which I’ve used the pencil:

  • with the tip (pressing quite hard) to get a firm edge line

  • on its edge, pressing lightly, for the areas of lighter shadow

  • on its edge, pressing quite hard, for the areas of darker shadow

  • some areas have been left blank to denote the highlights

Holly leaf drawing with a black pen using line to show light and shade

Holly leaf drawing with a black pen using line to show light and shade

Above: A holly leaf drawing made with my black drawing pen so that I need to show the light and shadow through lines and marks only (not ‘shading’ like with a pencil). I did this by using scribbly/sketchy lines, closer together in the darker areas.

Everyday Practice

Practice seeing areas of light and dark as you go about your day – they’re not always easy to spot but with practice you will start to notice them more clearly. I promise you that this will really help your drawing!

This is an important topic for your drawings so it’s one that we cover in depth in the Start Drawing Your Way Essential Drawing Skills Online Course where we have practical drawing exercises to get used to looking for light and shade in what we draw and thinking about how we want to show it in our drawings…

There’s an option for questions, help and feedback in the course to really help you make the most of your drawing practice, or you can choose to go with the completely DIY version - if the Essential Drawing Skills online course sounds like the sort of thing you might be interested in, you can find out all about it here…

Next:

More about mark-making in your drawing - using your marks to show form, texture and detail…

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