Ask the Art Professor: How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?

Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc.  Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by posting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously. Read an archive of past articles here.

Here’s today’s question:

“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”

Shading objects in a drawing has everything to do with lighting. Light is what shows form.  First of all, it’s important that the objects that you’re drawing are properly lit to emphasize the form of the objects. The best way to get started is to set up a still life with simple forms, (fruit works pretty well) and then direct a single light source onto it.

Once you have a good still life set up with light, take some time to visually analyze the different kind of shadows you see before you even begin drawing. There are essentially two kinds of shadows that you should be looking for:  Form shadows and cast shadows.  Once you understand how these two different kinds of shadows work, shading the object will make a lot more sense.

Sphere

Form shadows basically show form on an object.  They tend to have soft edges and are smooth and subtle. You will find form shadows on the objects themselves. Within a form shadow, you’ll find what I like to call the “shadow core”, which is the darkest area of the shadow. On the edge of the object you’ll find “reflected light”, which is where the light bounces off the surface the object is sitting onto the object itself.  Reflected light tends to be very, very subtle and is often times tough to see.  If you know to look for it, you’ll be able to find it.

Cast shadows are everything that a form shadow is not.  They are very harsh and graphic, with sharp edges. Cast shadows are very flat and do not show form at all. To get a cast shadow, you need the object that is creating the cast shadow, and then the surface on which the shadow is cast upon.

The key to creating convincing shading on objects is to keep the lighting very consistent among the objects in your still life. I see drawings all the time where the light seems to be coming from all different directions and therefore becomes very confusing. Notice in this Caravaggio painting below that the light on each object consistently comes from the left hand side of the painting, creating cast shadows on the right side of every object.

t_still_life_6

Detail from Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus”

Related articles:
“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”

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