Discover the Secret to Light and Shadows

January 26, 2011

Drawing Faces, Shading

Lighting and shadows are the lifeblood of a sketch and if you can master and understand it, you will be able to sketch believable portraits with ease.

In this post I’m going to take you step by step through the process I used to draw this picture and how understanding light and shadows will help you in your drawing, feel free to follow along.

I’d like to start with an illustration of a ball. The light is hitting the ball at an angle from the left. Now there’s going to be a section of the ball that is brighter or highlighted (the section reflecting the most light). There’s also the section that is receiving the least light and a section in-between these two.

These 3 sections are called:

  • Highlights
  • Middle-tones
  • Shadows

Now, just like this illustration with the ball you’ll find these 3 elements in any picture you draw. To find where these 3 elements are in your picture you first need to know where the light is coming from. So whether you are drawing from a picture, a model, or from your imagination it’s good to keep in mind where the light is coming from or to decide where the light will come from.


To start off, you’ll need an outline sketch of a face. I’ve used the same method to find the proportions of the face that I’ve mentioned in a previous post “What Everyone Ought to Know About Proportions”.

After you’ve drawn the basic sketch and erased the guidelines decide which direction the light is coming from. Based on that, lightly outline where the shadows and highlights are. Everything in between these two areas are the middle tones.
Lighting also affects the eyes, so I’ve drawn the outlines for the 3 shading elements in the iris.


Personally I like to start off with shading in the eyes. The reason behind this is if I shade the rest of the face in first I feel like I’m staring into the eyes of a zombie and it can be quite disconcerting. Feel free to try it. So shade in the shadows and middle tones in the eyes and leave the highlights as white as you can.

Now I’ve done my first layer of shading on the face and have filled in the main shadow areas that were outlined. Don’t worry about getting it super dark in the first layer of shading. I usually go over it a couple times to get it as dark as I want it to be.
Next I shaded in the middle tones. Try to shade this area as lightly as possible with feather like strokes and a light but steady hand.

Tip: I like drawing faces with smooth skin and if you do too you can use some facial tissues to smooth out and blend the different tones together.

At this point you might want to add some more shadows or darken different portions of the face.
Now go over the shadows and middle tones a couple of times till you are pleased with the contrast that you’ve created.
After shading the general areas of the face it’s time to fill in the rest of the facial features. I’m not going to write down in detail how to draw and shade each facial feature as this post is about shadows and lighting. I will cover that topic in a different article. Just keep in mind where the light is coming from and consequently where the shadows will be and you’ll be fine.

The hair has always been difficult for me, I think it’s because I always tried to draw each individual hair which turned out to be a nightmare. But what I’ve found helpful is to draw the basic flow and direction the hair is going and focus on the parts that stand out the most, that have the most contrast, and that catch your eye and then build around that.
To complete your drawing, take your eraser and lightly erase the center of the highlighted areas to give it more shine and contrast and you are finished.

Tip: CAUTION: Don’t put your greasy, sweaty fingers all over your picture. Instead put a piece of paper or tissue under your hand while shading to prevent imprinting your personal grease mark on your drawing.

So, understanding how shading and lighting works will get you going on the right track to making your pictures come alive. And remember that practice makes perfect; the more you do it the better you will become.

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