Light and Shadow

One of the skills that must be acquired by any artist is the ability to portray three dimensional shapes on the two dimensional page. This is done by creating areas of light and dark in the picture that fool the brain into believing that the image is actually three dimensional. However seeing and then drawing light and shade is not as easy as it sounds. When you get the balance of light and shade correct, your drawings look more exciting, are more attractive and appear to be far more visually stimulating.

The trouble is that our brain has great difficulty in seeing shadows. They are generally seen as abstract shapes that are formed by the light falling on a familiar object. For example, the shadows on someone’s face define the areas around the eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth, but most of the time we simply interpret these as colour variations on the surface of the skin. Quite often in strong light, accurately drawing the shape of the shadows will define the shape of the objects that created them.

Different levels of light and dark are called tones, and they each have different tonal values. The range of the tones in an image can go from black at one extreme to bright white at the other and there are thousands of values in between. On a page, the lightest tone or white is usually the colour of the paper, while the black is the darkest tone that can be created with your pencil, pen or paint. When using a pen or pencil for a drawing, the different values between the black and white extremes are created by shading. With paints the shades of grey or the range of light and dark colours is created with the correct colour mixing.

As a beginner, it is good to simplify things as much as possible and the use of tonal values is no exception. Although there are many shades of grey, by reducing them to just three, plus black and white, it is possible to learn to see them much more easily. This gives a five step tonal scale – white, light grey, mid grey, dark grey and black.

5stepgreyscale copy

Whenever you look at a subject, take a few moments to decide where the lightest and the darkest areas are. One useful technique that helps you to identify the dark and light areas is to half close your eyes. Apart from making the scene more blurred, this reduces the amount of light entering the eye, and so the number of tonal values is reduced to three – dark, medium and light. This is great in helping you to see where the darkest shades or shadows lie and it also makes the highlights stand out clearly. Once these areas have been identified, with your eyes fully open you can see the variations between the black and dark grey areas more easily.

Light and Shade demonstration

Light and Shade demonstration

Look at the three pictures above. The colour photograph is what you would normally see, but it is quite difficult to sort out the exact highlights and dark areas. The centre photograph is the same thing without the confusing colour and this makes it slightly easier to see the light and shade.

However the last picture shows the image with only five levels of light and shade, and it is fascinating to compare it with the colour version.

Can you now clearly see that highlights on the girl’s forehead, cheeks, eyes and shoulder? These can be left untouched in any drawing if you are using white paper. Also look at the range of tones in her face, where there is very little black, but mainly a combination of the three medium grey tones. However, where the darkest black in her hair meets the white highlight on her forehead and ear ring, there is an immediate point of interest

Seeing the shapes created by the shadows of light on the surface of an object is the first step towards making accurate drawings and realistic looking pictures. The next step is to use shading to make them appear the right tone in your drawing.

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