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5 Tips to Improve Pencil Shading for Beginners

Shading, in my humble opinion, is the most satisfying part of the drawing process. It’s where the real magic happens as you render your basic outlines into a drawing brimming with a sense of depth, volume, and form.

When I got back into drawing last year, I must admit that my shading skills were seriously lacking. It lacked contrast, depth, and confidence. But guess what? I’ve been on a mission to improve my shading, and I am lowkey proud of my progress so far. 😊

Here are a couple of my drawings drawn from similar references one year apart. The one on the right is the more recent one. I like how I have grouped the values in the newer drawing, and in comparison, I feel like I’m able to shade with more confidence now and I’ve gotten comfortable pushing the range of values.

So in this post, I’m excited to share the five tips that I believe have made the biggest difference in taking my shading skills to the next level. While I’ve primarily worked with graphite pencils so far, most of these tips could also be applied to shading with charcoal.

5. Get Your Drawing’s Structure Right Before Shading.

John Singer Sargent, one of the most prolific portrait artists of his generation, once noted that it is impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure is wrong. This wisdom applies equally to shading drawings.

Although it can be tempting for beginners (like myself) to dive right into shading, taking a few extra minutes at the start to establish the structure and get the proportions and perspective in order before rendering any details, can be a game changer. Not only does it save you time and mess caused by endless corrections, but it also allows you to shade a drawing with a lot more confidence.

4. Gradually build up the values in your drawing.

Building up values gradually can make your drawings look more unified and volumetric. My general approach to shading a drawing starts with the main shadow shapes, followed by midtones, and leaving the darkest shadows and highlights towards the end.

Here’s the four-step shading process I follow:

  1. Block in the shadow shapes: Start by defining the major shadow areas in your subject and gently shade within those regions to create a consistent value. Organizing the values of a drawing into two segments of light and dark early in the shading process helps you to read the shapes better and makes it a lot easier to expand the value range later on.
  2. Shade the midtones: After blocking in the main shadows, shade the midtones while leaving some space for the highlights. I usually use a lighter pencil (like an HB) for midtones to contrast with the shadows defined in Step 1.
  3. Refine the values: This is the stage where I seek to darken some of the shadows I blocked in earlier as well as blend certain areas for a smoother value transition. It is helpful to try different shading techniques to add a bit of texture, contrast, and aesthetics.
  4. Create highlights and push the values of the darkest shadows: I like to reserve these for the end of my shading process as I feel this helps to make my drawings look more coherent.

3. Use smudging sparingly.

When used strategically, smudging or blending can definitely make your drawings look more interesting. I especially love to blend some edges with the background as I think it helps me to convey a sense of mood and atmosphere in my drawings. However, I would advise you to not go overboard with smudging as it can sap the life out of your drawings.

From my experience, relying too much on smudging can make your drawings look one-dimensional. I remember when I first discovered the blending stump, I got obsessed with it to the point that my drawings started looking a bit plasticky and devoid of any texture or visual detail about the line work that went into making a particular drawing.

What I’ve learned is that it’s best to use blending techniques strategically in the final stages of your drawing. Balancing it with other shading techniques, like parallel hatching, can help you retain the line work which is essential for conveying the sense of movement in your drawings.

2 Know the properties of different types of shadows

Shadows help us to perceive the volume of different forms. Drawing shadows convincingly during the shading process requires an understanding of how light, or the absence of it, creates different types of shadows.

Here are the five types of shadows to remember when shading:

  1. Form shadows: These appear on the side of the object that is turned away from the light source.
  2. Core shadow: The darkest part of a form shadow near the terminator line that separates shadows and highlights.
  3. Shadows receiving bounced light: Lighter segments of form shadows that catch reflected light.
  4. Cast shadows: These are projected from objects in front of a light source onto what’s behind them.
  5. Occlusion shadows: The darkest ones, usually trapped in narrow crevices between objects and planes.

1. Focus on the big shapes and planes.

In my experience, getting too caught up in small details during shading can clutter your drawing and disrupt its harmony and balance.

So, here’s a tip that really made a difference for me: focus on the big masses, planes, and tonal shapes early in your drawing. Keep your attention on these as long as you can, and try not to lose their essence when shading.

Prioritizing these major shapes and volumes in your drawing also allows you to leave out some details for the viewer’s imagination without compromising its believability. I find inspiration in the work of old masters like John Singer Sargent to learn how to suggest the dominant shapes and forms in a drawing through its value hierarchy.

So there you have it, five tips to boost your pencil shading skills. I hope these tips help you improve your drawings and make your shading more enjoyable! ✏️