Light & Shadow

Previously, we learned how to draw objects in three-dimensional form using predominantly linear methods. This section will address the role of light, shadow and shading techniques in rendering realistic, three dimensional form. Form is the illusion of a three-dimensional structure created using shading and/or perspective.

Light and shadow create depth and atmosphere in a drawing. Without them even a well constructed drawing with perspective and proportion is going to appear somewhat flat. If you look closely, you will notice that everything in the real world has a shadow, therefore no drawing is truly realistic without them. By incorporating light and shadow from this point forward, your drawings will really start to jump off the page.

Light Source

Generally speaking, at least one light source influences the look of any drawing. This could be sunlight or artificial light. At other times, both could be present. For the time being, we'll work with a single light source to avoid confusion. Identifying the direction from which the light is coming is key when it comes to shading. The location of the light source relative to the subject will impact where the light hits the subject and at what intensity. The direction of the light source must be factored into all shading so that tonal consistency is maintained throughout the drawing. .


Tone represents the lightness or darkness of an area in terms of black to white. Tone can be thought of as a range of values; highlights being the whitest whites, mid tones the medium values of grey and shadows encompassing the darkest tones.

Highlights are the areas of the subject closest to the light source. Consequently, they are the brightest and thus whitest areas of the subject, with progressively darker shading from this point outwards. Used in conjunction with shadows, highlights serve to enhance the illusion of three-dimensional form. The number of highlights on a subject is limited only by the number of reflective surfaces and the ability of the surfaces to reflect light. If the subject is smooth and shiny, highlights will be very bright and intense. If the subject has a rougher consistency, the highlight will be dulled and blend more smoothly into the mid tones.

Mid tones fall midway between highlight and shadow and generally make up the majority tone. They represent the true color and consistency of the subject whereas highlights are brighter than the "true" color and shadows are darker.

Other pages of interest

Drawing light and shadow
Creating shadows in your drawings
Reflected light and shading
Shading to convey form
Shading techniques