Shadow drawing techniques with graphite pencils, or ball point pencils.  Not a photoshop drop shadow in sight! Drawing light and shadows can be tricky, but is essential if you are going to create pictures that makes sense, and for the objects in a scene relate to each other. Shadows can be used in composition as well as to focus attention in some areas. I’ve tried to cram everything I know into this one page, but please feel free to add more.

In this tutorial I will look at:

  • Light direction
  • Cast shadow vs form shadow
  • Using shadow to create form
  • Using shadow behind forms rather than line to define form
  • Using rim-light where there is a convergence of shadow of form and cast shadow
  • Direction of line – perspective, horizontal, verticals, shadow which is cast over form, form shadow.
  • And a little reference to shading: Cross hatching and texture
  • A little bit on using shadow as part of composition

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What are shadows?

Shadows are created by a light falling on a 3 dimensional shape which prevents some or all of the light from continuing beyond that shape. If a shadow is lit, then it as a result of light coming from elsewhere, either another source, or else bounced light from the same source, which is called ambient light. That can mean the shadow actually has a colour to it.

Shadows are darker in recesses, which is because the shadow isn’t lit by the ambient light: in other words the form blocks the passage of the ambient light as well as the direct light.

Shadow drawing techniques illustration

This illustration depicts how shadow is used – see text for more information

Light direction

Light can ONLY travel in straight lines, ever, unless it deflected by a large mass, like a planet. However, one place light appears to bend is in mirages where there is a source of water beyond the horizon line, yet water can be seen. Basically the atmosphere creates a refracting mirror which bounces the light along at ground level around the curvature of the earth.

Secondly, rim light. I’ll talk about that later how it can be used creatively, but simply put when something is back lit – there is a source of light or perhaps reflected light BEHIND the object – then it appears that there is a light around the very edge of form.

Light can also pass through glass, and sometimes that glass has a form itself – a magnifying glass, for example, or a glass of water. There is still a cast shadow and a form shadow, but there are other interestingly reflected shadows and refracted lights going on, intersecting with each other. You should ensure that your light and shadow in drawing is accurate and so using and studying objects is a great way of learning, don’t just guess.

Useful books:

click the above image to see the book details

please click the image to see the book details


Softness and drawing shadows

No shadow is sharp apart from in the darkest spaces, often at the root of the shadow. Imagine a wooden post coming out of the ground: at the foot of the post the shadow is darkest. However, as you travel along the shadow away from the post, in other words towards the areas of shadow cast by the top of the post, then the shadow edge becomes more fuzzy and in fact lighter. That’s because the ambient light has more effect. The brighter the source light, the sharper the edge remains, and the deeper the shadow remains towards the extremes of the shadow, and the less the effect of the ambient light.

A bright summers day will give you the strongest shadows, and because of the angle of the sun, the shorter the shadows. A winter’s day provides longer and weaker shadows. By ‘stronger’ I don’t mean just ‘darker’ – it’s about contrast. So a strong shadow is one which has the greatest contrast with the surroundings, a weak shadow tends to be tonally not dissimilar. By bearing this in mind when you are shading you can help the viewer to understand the lighting of the scene. Remember that on a white piece of paper, the brightest light you have to work with is the white of the paper. By sufficiently darkening the rest of the page and correctly rendering the shadows, you can make that white of the paper seem very bright.

Taken further you can choose NOT to render shadows. What that does is to create ‘blowouts’ in the white. Too much of this effect means that there is no form to actually look at, but again, used carefully, you can create places which appear brighter than even the white of the paper!

If you are using watercolour think about your light and shadow drawing in pigment terms and use masking fluid to keep your whites white.

Cast shadow and form shadow

A shadow is a shadow, but to explain the difference, one is cast by the form, and the other helps us to understand the form of the object. The cast shadow tells us how the object relates to the support that it rests on, or floats over; whereas the form shadow reveals the shape by creating darks and lights which vary across the form. Sometimes the form casts a shadow across its own form, which further reveals the forms. If the area that a cast shadow goes over a form shadow, then at the overlap the shadow is deeper.

Understanding cast shadow

Remembering that light travels in straight directions, and where you find the deepest/strongest shadows, you can create the illusion of height and depth on a flat piece of paper.

For example, in addition to the description above of how shadow fades and so on, an object that has more depth to it will create a larger shadow even if you can’t see the actual form of the object.

You can use a cast shadow to reveal the undulations and shapes of the form itself, as well as putting a shadow behind a shape so as to define the object itself.

Since the combination of light and shadow also tells you how far from the supporting surface the object is, the further you put a shadow from its source, and how deep the shadow is, will tell you how far the object is from other objects.

Using Shadow to create form

shadow and lighting drawing over form

shadow and lighting drawing over form

Here are two objects – a cube and a sphere which are shaded, and a post which is casting a shadow over the two objects. I’ve not included the cast shadow of the cube and sphere so as not to confuse the shadows in the pictures. The shadows communicate the depths and how the planes of the form are laid across the object. It shows you if there are recesses or raised parts. And a shadow which falls across the object with do the same thing.

Rim Light

I’ve pointed out in using shadow and light to create form that a line is simply something we make up to create the point at which one object is distinct from another object, and is made up. Better is to use a shadow behind an object to define the object closer to the viewer.

You can even use a made up shadow that wouldn’t exist in real life to drop behind an object to create a contrast which reveals or brings a focus to a tonally contrasting object.

But what happens when the shadow which creates the form makes the object appear to blend into the shadow which is being cast? Enter rim lights! Don’t worry about creating sources of a second behind-the-object source of lighting, just imagine there is one there. To drop in a rim light simply leave a light area, not too wide, between the two shadow area. It can work to erase an area where you want to place a rim light, but it’s better to not put any graphite there at all because even a good eraser leaves a little behind, greying the light.

Shading styles for shadows

Firstly, make sure that your shadow lines follow the form of the objects and what the shadows fall on. If you are using markers, pencils or ballpoint pens, watercolours, oils and so on, that’s key. If you are using something which will create a line, such as the pencils or pens, you must also make sure that your lines follow the form of the object. That really helps you to create forms and shapes. For darker areas you can crosshatch, or stipple, or create other textures.

In general, the lines you use for your shading style should follow the form of the object the shadow falls on, or perspective points, or horizontals, or verticals. When you cross hatch then the first cross hatchings to put in should follow the other options. Once you’ve used up the horizontal/vertical/perspective or forms, THEN put lines in more ad hoc directions.

Composition and shadows

Shadows can be used with composition to unify areas, to separate areas, to create a rhythm in the picture so that rather than the eye getting lost you can frame other parts of the picture or direct the eye through the picture.

Errors in shadows!

You can make mistakes. You can add a shadow that doesn’t exist, but you can’t miss out a shadow that SHOULD exist. The second mistake is inconsistency: if the main light source is on the right, all shadows cast to the left, and vice versa. Ambient light serves to soften the key shadows, and if strong enough you might even get a second shadow somewhere, but it will be much, much weaker.

What to draw for practicing your Shadow and light drawing

The best things to draw, wherever possible, are abstract shapes so that you can concentrate on the shadow and how it falls, creating form, rather than trying to make something look like what you are trying to draw.

– Trees: shadows fall across branches and around trunks, distance indicated between branches by depths and direction of shadows

– Draped cloth

– Stone

– Crushed cans

– Glasses of water/vases. Light passing through objects that reflect light (like a mirror), or refract (light gets to translucent materials and passes through it, but leaves the object at a different angle than it entered). There is often focussed light creating brighter areas lying right next to areas of shadow.

You can use the internet to find suitable pictures, or stock images from places like or


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