Looking at Lights and Shadows

My “drawing assignment” for today found me a bit flummoxed. Oh, what an awesome word that is! I don’t hear it often, but it describes perfectly how I felt when Barrington Barber instructed me to draw whatever was outside my window.

Barber, you might recall, is the author of numerous “how-to-draw” books, and for my summer drawing practice, I’m going through “The Fundamentals of Drawing”.

The book covers just about anything and everything an artist might ever want to draw. Beginning with a few helpful drawing exercises, it goes on to cover still life drawings, landscapes, animal drawings, portraits, and figure drawing.

This morning, you can surely guess, was a bit of landscape drawing. Here’s what Barber had to say:

“The easiest landscape to start with is what is outside your window. What you see will be helpfully framed by the window, saving you the task of deciding on how much or little to include. Going out into the countryside will give you greater scope.”

I understood exactly what he was saying. I can still recall my first attempt at plein air landscape painting, and my awe and amazement at how much there was to see. I described it in a post from June 2018.

My first realization — I hope I can explain this in a way that makes sense — is that it was difficult for me to determine boundaries in the scene. Where did it begin and end? Since I was working in a three-dimensional location, how could I convert it to two dimensions? I couldn’t quite figure out how and where to place the horizon and how far upward the sky should extend. In reality, you see, it’s infinite. It goes on forever. Simple facts, of course, but mind-blowing realizations for a first time plein air painter.  From: This Is What an Artist Does

Barber does mention the idea of “framing” for those who choose to venture outdoors instead of peering through a window. He shows two methods that can be used.



These are definitely helpful tips, although I didn’t use either technique this morning. Yes, I chose to do my drawing outside, looking out over the backyard. Here’s an approximate look at what I saw when I stepped outside. I say “approximate” because this photo was taken about an hour later, so the lights and shadows here are much different than what I saw.  I’ve also cropped the photo to show the area I included in my drawing.

Now, as to why I felt so flummoxed… well, several reasons.

First, although we do have nearly a half-acre of property, it’s still situated in a residential area. That means there’s a street over there, and another street if I look off to the south, or to the west, or to the north. I don’t want to do any “urban landscape” — or maybe “suburban landscape” would be a more appropriate term. I don’t do houses or other buildings, and even if I did, I wouldn’t really want them in any landscape. I want my landscapes to be natural — trees, grasses, flowers.

Second, I love landscape painting, but landscape drawing is a very different sort of art. I’ve developed the ability to do “quick sketches” in graphite that I can later use for painting, and I have down a few fairly successful graphite landscape drawings, but I find it very difficult. A good graphite drawing requires detail — in my opinion — and landscapes don’t really lend themselves well to detail. Again, my opinion. I can’t draw every leaf on a tree, every blade of grass, every blossom and bloom from a patch of flowers. The best I can do is try to capture the essential shapes of what I see. From there, my “landscape drawings” are mostly a lot of scribbles.

Third, while I love our house and our property, I don’t find it especially picturesque. I don’t step outside, look around and think, “Oh, I absolutely must draw this or paint this.” I don’t find any view breath-takingly beautiful.

And finally, fourth, good graphite landscape drawing — or any sort of graphite drawing — requires an investment of time. I don’t want to spent hours working on a single drawing of a subject I’m not really all that interested in.

So, what was I going to draw this morning? Ho-hum. Our boring backyard. I knew, of course, that I’d be leaving out any “man-made” structures. In its own way, I suppose, that made the scene even more boring. But this is my “summer fun” drawing class. I’m doing this “just because”. It’s a great way to practice techniques I’ve learned in the past.

I settled into a chair and looked out over the scene, mentally “framing” it in my head. I resolved to simply draw what I saw — to the best of my abilities. I began by figuring out where to place the horizon line, and then I sketched in the large tree in the center background, a second tree to the right, and then a third, small tree to the left. I added a round “bushy” shape, penciled in areas where there were flowers and lots of tall grasses.

I wasn’t too happy with what I was doing. Mostly, I was just making a few shapes and then filling them in with scribbles. But as I was scribbling in the bush to the right of that center tree, I started looking at the lights and shadows.

Turning my attention to the tall, grassy area between the trees, I noticed how dark the shadows were beneath the grasses. I started looking more closely, viewing lights and shadows and translating them into shapes. Soon I realized that the “boring backyard” scene wasn’t really so boring after all. I was fascinated by the lights and shadows I saw. No longer was I looking at a large expanse of green grass, but at a scene where lights and shadows created different patterns.


“Oh, I want to paint this!” I surprised myself, I think, I couldn’t wait to finish up my quick sketching so I could come inside, grab my watercolors, and see the lights and shadows in color.

I scanned the drawing into the computer, then enlarged it and printed it out on 8-1/2 x 11 copy paper. Then I had fun once more playing with the lights and shadows.


If I were more adept at watercolor, perhaps I could have created a more realistic look at this scene. I still have to remind myself to work from light to dark with watercolor. For me, though, the important thing is that I was really looking at the lights and shadows, really considering the shapes they created, even if I wasn’t able to accurately depict them in either my drawing or my watercolor copy. Awareness is always the first step, and even though I’ve long been aware of the need to look at lights and shadows, I’ve never really examined them very closely. I’ve settled for what you might call “generic” lights and shadows. Got a tall tree there? Well, it needs a shadow. Got a shadow on one side? Better put some light on the other.

This morning was different. I didn’t just look at lights and shadows. I saw them. And I did make some attempt to mark them in my drawing. To me, that means I am moving in the right direction. I am learning. Now, I want to look even more closely at lights and shadows. I want to sit out in our yard at different times of day and watch the lights and shadows move about.

I think my summer of drawing is going to be a lot of fun.




  1. Well done! I know I need to do more graphite sketching. But I am so seduced by color.
    I am thinking of going to see the Winslow Homer exhibit in nyc next month. I saw that he did some of the works in watercolor over graphite. This is an intriguing notion…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I would love to see that exhibit. I hope you go so you can tell me about it. I am like you…wanting to do more graphite but also wanting color!


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