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2021-11-25 03:30

Learn how to shade!

Image 1. Click to open in original size.
This article is very specific aimed towards painting/drawing but the information could also be useful elsewhere such as in photography.

Something many people struggle a lot with, especially when they start, is shadows. It can be very tricky to figure it out in the beginning. Even if you've made the shadows "correct" sometimes the picture still feel flat and dull. In this tutorial I'll show you how shadows actully works as well as how to make them look good!

Shadows are a bit tricky and I think universally everyone has a period where they struggle with Shading. What you have to first know is that shadows will always exist on the opposite side of a lightsource.


The lightsource hitting this pipe is coming from right.


Whenever the light moves the shadows also moves.


Also worth noting is that the object will cast longer shadows if the sun/lightsource gets lower.

Whenever something is located straight behind a lightsource, the whole backside will be covered in shadow. It can sometimes create a light surrounding the egdes, this is called rim light. Rim light is a good way of distinguishing between different objects in a dark setting. This is also helpful in photography.

In this picture both hands are next to eachother in the same lighting. The right hand has a so called "rim light".

Indirect lightning vs direct lightning

Now when we've understod how shadows works, how shadows looks with light hitting it from different directions, we're going to talk about soft shadows and harsh & defined shadows. Have you ever tried Shading something and it turning out muddy?


Here's an example of a typical muddy shadow - the picture lacks depth.

The picture above is propably the first thing beginners stumbles upon when they start Shading. This is as common in digital art as it is in traditional art. You can tell it looks quite dull and it can be hard to understand exactly why. This is when we start discussing indirect lights, defined and harsh shadows, Contrast and shapes.

The first step is knowing how different shapes affects the outcome. It will produce different shadows.


Shadows will always bend according to shapes. Soft shapes like the red ball has no sharp edges. This is why the shadow often becomes soft and Gradient. Sharp shapes like cubes has sharp edges, the shadows behind will therefore also be quite sharp.

How do we fix our muddy picture?


Text translation: The jaw has an edge which creates a sharp shadow.


Text translation: The head is a soft shape, therefore the shadows around the cheeks gets soft


Text translation: It's worth mentioning that shadows will ALWAYS follow shapes.

Now, if we apply this knowledge on our earlier picture, we get this:

Much better, isn't it?

It can still feel a bit flat. Many people struggle on this front. Contrasts are difficult to many, what if you accidently destroy the picture? It can be easier to create less dark shadows - as it comes with no risks. You won't "destroy the picture" and you don't have to cover up anything. It's understandable, you put a lot of time making those details!

"Kill your darlings!"

Unfortunally, by playing it safe and not trying to create contrasts you can lose depth as a consequence. My old art teacher always used to say: "Kill your darlings!"
Sometimes you have to ruin things or paint over things, let go of concepts or change somethings in order for the picture as a whole to become better.

I mean, look for yourselves. Contrasts can sure make a huge difference!


Isn't the different huge?


An old picture I drew as a teenager


Sharper shadows and contrasts helps a lot!

The sharpness of shadows and contrasts isn't just dependent on the shape it bends after. Different lightings can also have huge impact on shadows. Indirect light often makes shadows wider and softer while direct light creates greater contrasts. A great example demostrating this is flashlights.


Flashlights has a very bright, sharp, concentrated light. The more far away you move it the more diffuse it gets.

Brighter lights creates greater contrasts. What is indirect lights? This is how Google describes it:

"Indirect light examples include; ambient room lighting, filtered light through blinds or curtains, and reflected light from walls and surfaces. "

So basically dull lights. Perhaps the lamp in your cosy lair with the soft lights?

hård vs mjuk skugga igen.png

Indirect vs direct lighting

Material matters

The last thing we are going to bring up in this tutorial is something that also affects shadows. Namely the material of an object. Reflective material such as iron or metal often has greater contrasts, greater hightlights. Objects with a more dull surface, things made out of wood for example, has a more spread out and soft lighting/shadow. Of course it's possible to polish the surface of your wooden object to get its surface more reflective, just as rough, raw metal will be pretty dull.


Leather armour


This metal armour is a bit more shiny

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

  • Edited by Tismon 2021-11-25 04:43
2021-11-25 14:27
Image 1. Click to open in original size.

As a photographer, I think a lot about light rather than shadows, but the thinking is the same. I want to illuminate my subject in a way that suits the purpose of the photo.

Sometimes, as a photographer, you want to recreate the lighting of someone else’s photo. Then you have to look carefully at the shadows, the light, and, if available, the light source.

The attached photo is an example showing how you can figure out how an image was lit. Tap to open it full-size.

Once again, you have written a very interesting article! 👍🏻

Best regards, Niklas 🎈

  • Edited by Niklas 2021-11-25 14:28
2021-11-25 17:47

#1: Oh that is really awesome! When you draw you have, most of the time, a white canvas or a light bacgkround. So you often just add shadows because the "light" already is there.

But it really makes sence that for a photographer you add light since the "neutral" state of reality is darkness and light sources such as the sun or artifical lightings is something that "gets added".

Really helpful picture, thank you for sharing.

Thank you! And feel free to share your work if you want to. Photography is a really interesting art medium :)

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

2021-11-29 09:23

Really excellent article! I love shadows and the depth you can create with them, especially with different mediums. For instance, in certain watercolor paintings or abstract paintings, one might just have a few layers to create a shadow, whereas a pencil drawing could have a lot of different layers to create much more depth. I personally love the process, sometimes it can take a lot of time but it is worth it.

2021-11-29 16:16

#3: Thank you I am happy you like it :) Yes, shadows really makes a big difference. Water colour painting is a very interesting medium to use because you have to apply it very differently indeed. I prefer to use a specific type of crayons, not sure what they are called in english. But you can blend really well using them and theyre also very good to make high Contrast shadows

A swedish store selling them:

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

Expressionist oljepastellkritor 36-pack, från Sakura Cray-Pas är oljepastellkritor av högsta kvalitet som riktar sig mot mot de lite mer erfarna användarna. De 36 pigmentrika kritorna har en behagligt krämig konsistens och är lätta att blanda och att arbeta med. De gör sig väl på många sorters ytor: papper, kartong, canvas, sten och trä. Oljepasteller kan även användas på andra sätt: i lager på lager för skrapteknik, i tjocka lager för impasto-effekt eller utspädda med terpentin för lavering. Färgerna är levande och ljusäkta och kommer i en bred palett. Kritorna är Ø 10 mm och 71 mm långa.
  • Edited by Tismon 2021-12-02 18:08
2021-12-01 13:53

I can't think of the word in english either. It must be the direct translation "oil pastel crayons." I used them in various art classes before but I never could get the hang of them. But I can image since it is oil based you can get really rich shadows.

2021-12-02 18:10

#5: Hmm yeah thank you, that would make sence if they are called that :)

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

2022-02-28 13:13

While reading one of your other articles, I thought about shading and that it could be a word worth describing in the community dictionary. 🙂

Best regards, Niklas 🎈

Savvity is a network of interest centered communities
2022-02-28 16:25

#7: Do you mean I should create a new thread to describe what Shading means? i e "the act of rendering shadows in an image"

Or did you mean that I should add this thread as a Dictionary entry?

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

2022-02-28 16:26

#8: I meant your first suggestion and adding a link from it to this article. 🙂

Best regards, Niklas 🎈

2022-02-28 16:50

#9: I see, I will do that, thank you!

Correlation does not equal causation.

Host of Dogs and Art Savvity

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