A Shady Character

As I work to improve my drawing skills, I’m learning more about shading techniques. But techniques are meaningless unless we know when — and where — to apply them. It probably sounds very foolish to ask, “Where do the shadows go?” So, call me a fool, indeed, because I find myself asking that question a lot.

Today my drawing time was all about light sources, about simply observing where the light is coming from before we start drawing or shading, but wait! Let’s back up a moment, long enough to acknowledge that light is the only thing we see.

Light RaysMy studies today focused — no pun intended — on a few fundamentals of optics.

When a ray of light hits an object, it bounces to your eye. The signals are then sent to the brain for processing. Your brain responds by creating an image.

We’re not seeing the object. We’re seeing the light rays reflected from the surface of the object. And note that this is plural. Not a single ray of light, but lots of light rays. What we see is a set of multiple light rays hitting our retina at a precise moment. These rays are coming from different directions and different distances. Those rays may also be hitting a lot of other objects before they hit our eyes.

I don’t know about you, but for me this makes the whole process sound rather complicated. I’m glad I don’t have to think about seeing in order to do it.

In drawing, I don’t have to think a lot about light. Especially in basic drawing exercises, the light source is usually clearly marked. The real problem for me is shadow.

But why should that be difficult? We all know what shadow is all about, right? The simple definition is that shadow is an absence of light, or to put it another way, it’s the area of an object that is untouched by direct light. If we’re in the shadow we can’t see the light source.

This, however, brings up more questions. If we can’t see the light source, and yet light is the only thing we can see, how can we see anything in shadow? The answer lies within a lot of scientific terms such as specular reflections, light absorption, transmitted light, and diffusion. And at this point, my mind starts shutting down. I want to learn about art, not optics, and while a little knowledge about optics may be essential to drawing, I don’t need to fully understand the science behind seeing… do I?

Still, it’s helpful to know that these different forms of light account for the various values we see — that wide range between light and dark. At the same time, just knowing that information doesn’t help me in creating the right values in a drawing.

Needing a simpler approach, I put the optics aside and browsed for more useful ways to deal with light and shadow in drawing. I found these tips:

Before you can draw the appropriate values that illustrate light and shadows correctly, you need to be able to visually identify the following:

Light source: The direction from which a dominant light originates. The placement of this light source affects every aspect of a drawing.

Shadows: The areas on an object that receive little or no light.

Cast shadow: The dark area on an adjacent surface where the light is blocked by the solid object.

From – Drawing Light and Shadow

Well, yes. That’s exactly what my lesson today was all about. Locating the light source. Once we know the light source, it should be simple. The shadows are areas that receive little or no light from the light source, and the cast shadow is the dark area where light is blocked. Makes sense, right?

Sure. So, when we take a look at images like this, we can see where the light source is. We can not only see the shadows but also the highlights.

Light Source Image

Now, let’s think back a couple of days to that exercise I worked on using 5 different values. That’s a good way to simplify the shading process, I think. Those 5 values are:

  • The lightest values
  • The light gray values
  • The medium gray values
  • The dark gray values
  • The darkest values

We can also describe these values as:

  • Highlights — the lightest areas
  • Light values – light gray and medium gray areas that are close to the light source but not in shadow
  • Dark values – the dark gray area of shadows
  • Cast shadow – the darkest area where light is blocked

So far, so good. Yes, I can look at drawing exercises, and I can see these areas. I can even copy them in my own drawing practices. What’s the problem then?

The problem comes in figuring out for myself where these different areas actually are. If I’m working with a reference photo or doing a drawing with an object and light source in front of me, it’s a fairly simple process — optics aside — to see the lights and shadows.

But what if I have no reference photo? What if I’m left on my own? Case in point, today’s assignment from Drawing Dimensions: Shading Techniques by Catherine Holmes.

Find or draw a simple outlined image of a character. Choose a direction in which a light source will be and shade in the item accordingly. Take each section of the character and shade in the darks and lights, one area at a time, until the whole figure has value. This is a quick way to practice adding value to a simple object to make it look more realistic. Although the cartoon will probably not look real, the addition of shadow will add interest and depth.

She provided a simple outline drawing of not-too-happy-looking shark, so I used that as a guide. Drawing the outline was easy enough. Shading it was not.

Shady Character (2)

In case you can’t tell, my light source is coming from the upper right. When I worked on the top fin, I was sure where the highlight would be and where the shadowed areas would fall. When I moved to the tail fin, though, I didn’t have a clue. The lower fins? The teeth? I can guess where the darkest shadows should be, but I was truly stumped about where lighter values or highlights would be.

Needless to say, my shady character didn’t look a lot like the finished one in the book. It was a good exercise, though, because it gave me a chance to think about lights and shadows, to recognize my own weaknesses, and to practice shading techniques. I still need to work on making my shading smoother and not blending away the different tones I create. Part of the answer, too, lies in being the artist and understanding what I’m creating.

The basic concept is simple.

  • Darker values show areas that are recessed
  • Lighter values show areas that are more prominent

For me, though, it’s not always simple, and this will probably be an area where I will continue to struggle. But, as in other areas, practice will lead to progress.

Holmes also mentions two different approaches to shading.

  • Method 1: Begin by applying a light tone over the entire drawing. This helps you see form more quickly. You can then apply other tones, and, if necessary, you can use a kneaded eraser to lift graphite away from the lightest highlights.
  • Method 2: Begin with the darkest darks in your drawing. From there, move upward through the value scale, completing the dark grays, the medium and light grays, and leaving the lightest areas unshaded.

There is, of course, a third method that is often recommended:

  • Method 3: Begin with the lightest values. Note where the highlights go, and then work down the value scale getting progressively darker until you’ve used all the values in your drawing. This is often suggested because it’s easier to darken places where necessary than to lighten areas that are too dark. If you start with the darkest values, you might end up with a drawing that’s too dark overall.

Following the suggestions in Drawing Dimensions: Shading Techniques I’ve been using the first method. I’ll try the second method in coming days, but actually, I think the third method is probably best for me. Or maybe I’ll see little real difference.

How about you? What approach do you take in the shading process when you’re drawing? Do you find it easy to determine exactly where the lights and shadows should be? Any tips you’d like to share?



    1. Oh, how reassuring to know that I’m not the only one! That makes me feel better already. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words on my art work. Hopefully with more practice and more tutorials I’ll find shadows becoming more “natural” to me, too.

      Liked by 1 person

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