The Same — But Different

FashionOne of my favorite jokes as a child was one about two women discussing fashion. The first had just bought a new dress and was showing it off. The second woman remarks:

Oh, I have a dress just like that! Except that mine is blue, and the sleeves on mine are a little longer, and mine doesn’t have a collar, but other than that it’s exactly the same! 

No, I’m not planning to try my hand at fashion drawing any time soon, although I wish I could. One of my dreams as a young girl was becoming a fashion designer. Maybe that’s why I loved that little joke so much.

Needless to say, I never pursued my interest in fashion, simply because I couldn’t draw. What would be the point of attending a school of fashion and design when I clearly wasn’t qualified?

Even now, although I’ve aquired rudimentary drawing skills, I still have a lot to learn, and that brings us to the real topic of today’s post. Not fashion, not design, not dresses, but the familiar “girl in the hat”. You’ve seen her before.

Girl in Hat

Now, I suppose she could be considered somewhat fashionable, but for my purposes she’s entirely functional. She’s an exercise in shading techniques, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned recently it’s that my shading sucks! Like a mongoose.

The “girl in the hat” is also an exercise in understanding and creating focal points through the use of contrasting values. Earlier in the week I posted my first drawing.

GIrl in Hat - Sunglasses (2)

This drawing was done free-hand, so it’s a little bit different from the template. Oh, well. That happens when I’m drawing. It happens a lot, but I completed the shading as instructed, using the sunglasses as a focal point. They are darker. They are supposed to catch the viewer’s attention. Do they? I hope so.

But the exercise didn’t end there. There were questions posed about choosing a different focal point. What would I do differently if I wanted the lips to be the focal point? How about the hat?

For those two drawings, I used the template provided. For the “lip” focal point, however, I reversed the template. I did keep the light source the same and tried to place the shaded areas correctly.  So, she’s the same girl in the same hat… just a little bit different.

Girl in Hat - Lips (3)

I think it’s fairly obvious that I really wasn’t sure how to create contrast — and interest — around her lips. I did use a carbon pencil to darken them a bit, but overall my shading is very bland. There’s not much contrast, and the resulting picture is not very interesting at all.

Next I set about making the hat the focal point. I used the same template, but here she’s facing to her right. It’s the same picture as before… just different.

Girl in Hat - Hat (2)

As you can see, I was much more comfortable going darker on my shading here, and that does make for a better drawing, I think. But maybe I got it all a bit too dark. I’m not happy with the cross-hatching marks I used to indicate the texture of the hat. It’s a good illustration of the less is more principle. Fewer hatch marks would have resulted in a more believable illusion.

Putting them all together, here are my three girls wearing their hats. They’re the same, but different.

After doing these exercises, I realized how weak my shading techniques are. A lot of questions came to my mind as I worked on these.

  • Is it better for me to use a single pencil and vary the tone by changing the pressure?
  • Or should I choose different pencils to achieve different values?
  • Is it best to build up the darker values by applying additional layers of graphite?
  • Should I shade the darkest areas first?
  • Should I begin with lighter areas and work my way toward the darker values?
  • What tools are best for blending?
  • When blending do I start from the dark areas and blend outward?
  • Should I start blending in lighter areas and move toward the darker values?
  • How do I keep my blending sticks from getting too dirty to use?
  • How do I prevent smudging?

Lots of questions, indeed! And I haven’t gotten to the really big question yet. That’s the most important one of all:

  • How do I improve my shading techniques to create a smooth gradient?

The quickest and easiest answer, of course, is practice. But there’s one thing about practice we always need to keep in mind. Practice can lead to proficiency, but only if we’re practicing correctly. At this point, I’m not sure my shading methods are right.

But, I’m practicing nevertheless. I’m watching tutorials. I’m reading articles about gradient shading. I’m doing additional exercises, like this one on shading flower petals. Look closely, and you can probably tell that I tried different ways of shading on different petals. You can also see bits left behind by my eraser.

Flower - Shading Exercise (2)

It’s another example of doing the same thing, but doing it differently each time. And even after all those petals, I still have answered the questions about what’s right for me, and what will work best for shading.

Much of it, I suppose, comes down to personal preference, shading in a way that’s comfortable and natural, and hopefully with practice, I will improve. Shading is a fundamental technique in drawing, one that can truly transform our art from easy to eye-catching.

Any suggestions will be appreciated!


  1. Hi, Judith. 🙂 I just found your blog yesterday and am rediscovering my art roots after a lifetime of loving drawing, attending one year of art school, and quitting for several decades to focus on raising a family. So, your posts resonate with me because of their beginner’s mind approach.

    Leading with that, I’m going to answer the second easiest answer to your questions. If #1 is practice, #2 is experimentation. Experiment and find what works best for you when it comes to tools and method. Literally, pull out a piece of scrap and try out various ways of doing gradients without focusing on the final outcome of a composition. There is a lot to be said for tool testing, color swatching, and other forms of trying out techniques without simultaneously worrying about whether your final product is going to be good. This way you can give 100% focus on whether the tool feels right for the job, which colors you are mixing to get the perfect shade, or even testing combined ideas before applying them to a drawing or painting. And the experimentation in itself can easily be turned into a fun exercise in abstract expressionism. 🙂

    I will also add that generally going from light to dark makes it easier to correct mistakes because it’s easier to erase or cover something light than something dark. But I know plenty of people and techniques that do the opposite. And, for example, with watercolors, since the pigment is heaviest on the brush right after dipping, sometimes it is best to apply shadow first and fade out. It really depends on the artist, the project, and the medium.

    To prevent smudges, sometimes it helps to put a piece of scrap paper between your hand and the composition. Sometimes it helps to use a very soft, large brush to lightly whisk away those eraser shavings so the oils from your hands don’t touch the paper or medium. If your blending stumps are dirty, you could do a few things depending on how it’s made. Rubbing the excess graphite off on a piece of scrap paper sometimes is enough. Fine sandpaper can wear down the outer layer and dull point to a fresh layer and sharper point. I’ve owned some that were designed to peel away. And I’ve also just used things like a rolled piece of paper or a Q-tip to achieve a clean blend. A spray fixative can help preserve pencil and pastel drawings after they are complete. But unfortunately it is the nature of dry media to smudge. It’s great for blending, but often makes me shake a fist when it smears into places I had no intention of smudging! LoL … Especially if it’s a finished piece — ugh!

    Anyway, hope something there helps. I will look forward to future posts on your journey. Nice to meet you. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So nice to meet you, too! I’m glad you found the blog, and so very glad you took time to share a few thoughts and suggestions. I sometimes get impatient with shading practice. I’ve done value studies using different pencils and different pressures, and I haven’t yet reached that point of feeling, “Oh, yes, this is right for me,” so sometimes it feels like I’m just doing the same thing over and over — but doing it differently — and still not getting the results I want. I know that improving my shading techniques is the next “big step” to take in my graphite drawing, so I will keep working on it, doing practice shading every morning during my drawing time. I’ve mostly done shading with blending stumps, so I do need to experiment with brushes, Q-tips, and tissues. I’m planning to keep working on shading until I do find what’s most comfortable for me and what approach really works best for me. Thank you again for all the helpful advice. I hope you’ll continue to follow along on my art journey. I’m glad you’re at a point in life where you can pick up with art. I look forward to seeing your work!


  2. At this point you don’t need to care about smooth gradients.
    My recomendation is that you spent some time working with only two values (one for light and one for shadow).
    Then add another one for half tones. Spent some time working with only three values.

    If you like graphite use the softest one (6B or 8B). You can use it on any kind of paper but if you draw small use one with less grain.
    Keep your pencils sharperned.

    You will get surprised if you do this:

    -Soft graphite
    -Only three values.
    -Blend from shadow to light with a paper blender (of the right size) and keep the blender clean.

    Liked by 1 person

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