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SHADING in ART - Tips on value, shadows and lighting

A blurred worksheet with the text "let's talk about shading" over it

Shading can be one of the most difficult steps when it comes to finishing an art piece. Light sources can be hard to understand, and shadow colours can be even harder to get the hang of. But don’t worry -- there are some key things to keep in mind when adding shadows that can assist your process. With that said, let’s talk about shading!

Use a range of values

"The Night Watch" by Rembrandt (left), "Impression Sunrise" by Claude Monet (right)
"The Night Watch" by Rembrandt (left), "Impression Sunrise" by Claude Monet (right)

The effectiveness of your shading relies on value, an element of art. Your values are the lightness and darkness of your colours, and these help you distinguish features of an artwork. If you don’t have a wide enough range of values, it’ll be harder to distinguish your shadows from your colours. Values that range all the way from light to dark can give the art piece high contrast, a principle of design. High contrast is generally desirable since it makes it much easier to read your art piece as a whole. Making sure your shadows are dark enough and that your light is light enough is key to creating a varied and dynamic art piece!

Types of shading

two figures, one soft shaded, one cel shaded

There are two major types of shading -- soft shading and cel shading. Soft shading is a slightly more realistic technique, where your shadows are more complex and blended.. Cel shading is a more cartoony method, where shadows are added with sections of darker colour that aren't blended in. This gives the artwork a less realistic, flatter look. Lots of semi-realistic artists will blend the two in order to add a certain stylistic flair to their artwork. However, blending the two methods will also give you more realistic effects, since you can show proximity and intensity -- how close your light source is, and how bright your light source is. Mastering those are key to illustrating fantastic shadows!

Types of Shadows

A sphere drawn with complete shading

There are three main types of shadows to consider when you’re adding shading to your artwork -- cast shadows, form shadows, and core shadows. Cast shadows are the shadows that objects cause when light is blocked. These are the shadows you see of yourself when you’re outside, or the shadows you use when creating shadow puppets! Form shadows are on the side of an object that isn’t facing the light source. When you point a flashlight beneath your chin to make a spooky face, the areas that aren’t lit up by your flashlight are form shadows. Core shadows are within the form shadows, but are the darkest parts of them. For instance, if you looked at a shaded sphere, the darkest band of the form shadow would be your core shadow.

Light sources and object opacity

two cubes, one opaque and one transluscent

A light source is the point where your light is coming from. Light sources will also determine the direction of your shadows, because if light hits one side of an object, a shadow will come from the other. For instance, say you had a cube that was hovering above the ground, and your light source was above it. The top of the cube would be bathed in light, while the cube would cast a shadow underneath it. Make sure you know what the light will hit straight on, and what will block it!

But also keep in mind how opaque an object is when you see it! If light is hitting an object that’s translucent, then light may not be completely blocked out. For instance, if you shine a light at a cube of jelly, the light will still pass through the jelly and create a reddish, translucent shadow. Advanced artists will add small reddish edges to their shadows to show the slight translucency of human skin -- this technique is called subsurface scattering, an advanced shading technique which can do wonders for creating the illusion of realism!

The intensity and proximity of your lights

two figures, one lit with a candle and the other lit with the sun

The intensity of a light refers to how bright your light source is. This determines how much of the surrounding area the light source will affect. For instance, candlelight may only affect a small area of a room, while the sun affects the entire earth. Proximity refers to how close or far away a light source is. This determines how concentrated the shadows and lighting are, or how much the main subject is affected by it. For instance, holding a candle close to your face will have very concentrated light, but holding it far away from you will create more scattered light.

two figures, one standing on the ground, and one jumping far above

The proximity of objects to a light source is also important to consider. When two objects or two edges are closer to each other, the shadow is far more concentrated. This is when it becomes more favourable to use cel shading, since the edge of the shadow will be sharper. However, if your objects are farther away from each other and the light source, the edges of the shadows will be much softer. This is when it becomes more favourable to use soft shading. For instance, compare your shadow when you stand right next to a wall and a flashlight is pointed on you, versus the shadow of a cloud passing over the sun. Keep these in mind when you want to make your shadows more dynamic and interesting!

Overall, when it comes to any aspect of art, practice is the number one thing you need in order to get better. Experiment with different light sources, different proximities, and different intensities to find the style and look that you want for your artwork.

If you’re a teacher, we have a simplified worksheet on this topic plus a simple activity for your students, which you can find on our teachers pay teachers page! If you’d like to practice more of that realistic shading, check out our realistic drawing classes, where you can get further tips on your values and push your realism to the limits. If you’re more of a cartoonist, check out our cartooning and anime classes, where you can learn all about the art of stylized shading!

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