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6 Pencil Shading Techniques for Beginners

Hey there, fellow art enthusiast! Shading is by far my favorite part of drawing. There’s something almost magical about watching your drawing outline transform into a three-dimensional masterpiece when you render some shading to it.

Now, I must admit that when I picked up drawing again last year, my drawings looked rather flat. But I’ve been on a quest to explore different shading techniques, hoping to depth and charm into my pencil drawings. So, here are my top six shading techniques, complete with examples and handy tips. I’m still learning, but I hope you’ll find these techniques just as exciting as I do.

6 Directional shading.

Head of a Girl by Leonardo Da Vinci is a perfect specimen of the directional shading technique.

Directional shading, also known as parallel hatching, is probably the quickest and easiest shading technique for beginners. Just draw a series of lines in the same direction, with subtle variations in intensity, length, and spacing.

What I love about directional shading is that it’s so easy on the eyes because of the consistent flow of the pencil lines, and despite its simplicity, it is remarkably effective in adding depth to your drawings.

When I first started shading this way, I found it most natural to hatch lines at a 45-degree angle upwards from left to right (I draw with my right hand). But over time, I’ve gotten used to drawing parallel lines in different directions. If you’re new to directional shading, I suggest you first practice lines at an angle you’re most comfortable with.

The cross-hatching technique takes directional shading a step further by adding another set of parallel lines on top of the existing lines but in a slightly different direction to create a web. When used strategically with parallel hatching, cross-hatching can help convey the full range of values in a drawing.

5 Smudging.

Smudging around graphite that’s already shaded onto the paper is a great way to blend the values and vary the sharpness of the drawing.

There are different ways to blend a pencil drawing but my go-to blending tool is simply using my finger to spread the graphite. It’s just so convenient (am I too lazy?) and I like the smoky aesthetic that it lends to drawings. However, if you want to be more precise with your blending and a smoother finish (or simply prefer clean fingers), a paper stump would do the job like a pro.

Smudging isn’t just about blending value transitions though; one thing that I have noticed some artists like Stephen Bauman do so well and that I’m currently trying to learn myself too is creating some “lost edges” by selectively blending segments of the outline with the background or the cast shadows to enhance the depth and visual interest of a drawing.

4 Layering.

Layering, as I like to call it, is about building your values gently and gradually, just like you would with colored pencils.

Unlike techniques like directional shading, layering doesn’t leave prominent pencil strokes. Instead, it creates smooth blocks of tones without resorting to smudging, making it suitable for a more precise drawing style.

3 Negative shading.

This might sound too obvious, but erasers aren’t just for fixing drawing mistakes, my friends. When combined with other shading techniques, erasing can add depth and texture to your drawings.

I’ve got a couple of favorite erasers in my arsenal:

  • Kneaded erasers are best for lifting subtle amounts of shading. You can mold them into any shape you desire, and they gently peel off layers of graphite from your drawing without disturbing the shading underneath (or damaging the paper if you draw on cheap printing paper sheets like me).
  • For creating highlights and negative space, I like to use more sturdy erasers. Although you can use any ordinary eraser for the job, I find it really convenient to use pencils with a built-in eraser on one end like the Blackwing pencils because it allows me to lift graphite with better precision and because I’m using the same tool to draw as well, it significantly reduces the probability of getting misplaced be me while I’m drawing!

2 Contour hatching.

Now, this technique has a relatively steep learning curve compared to other shading techniques but is definitely worth practicing. Contour hatching involves drawing pencil lines that follow the shape of an object.

Unlike directional shading which uses straight lines, contour hatching flows with the bends, twists, and curvates of your subject which is why it’s ideal for bringing out the three-dimensional forms of organic shapes, like the human body.

Drawings by Albrecht Durer like the one below are a masterclass on contour hatching.

Praying Hands, by Albrecht Durer.

1 Pencil shading over a wash.

I’ve recently started experimenting with this technique, inspired by the old masters’ pen and ink drawings. The idea is to apply a base of watercolor or ink wash immediately after outlining your drawing, followed by pencil shading.

Admittedly, I still have lots to learn about it but here are three things I have found helpful in applying this technique:

  1. Make sure to use paper that’s at least 150 grams to prevent bleed-through from the wash.
  2. Leave out sections of your drawing from the wash where you plan to add highlights. You simply can’t erase watercolor or ink from the paper.
  3. Let the wash dry completely before attempting any pencil shading to prevent tearing into the paper.

So there you have it, my fellow art explorers – six techniques to improve your pencil shading skills. And don’t worry if you’re not a master right away. Remember, art is all about the process, and there’s no rush to perfection. I’m still learning and having a blast with my drawing journey.

So, grab your pencils, have some fun, and let your inner artist shine! Happy drawing 😊!

Shannah hickey

Sunday 4th of February 2024

I am grateful for any education I can receive that will make my growth in portraits a continuous road.


Monday 5th of February 2024

I'm glad to share what little I know about drawing here. Thank you! 😊