Out of the Shadows: Hacks Every Artist Needs to Draw Realistic Shadows

Understanding and correctly drawing shadows is crucial to the depiction of 3-D illusion on a flat, 2-D surface. Shadows are part of realist drawing in any medium: graphite pencil, colored pencil, pen and ink, and charcoal.

Before you learn how to put shadows on paper, you’ll need to understand the different types of shadows and how to identify them. 

Types of shadows

There are two types of shadows: the form shadow (sometimes called the core shadow) and the cast shadow. It’s often easiest to understand these shadows when talking about drawing a sphere.

Form shadows

The form shadow is present on the object itself and is of the darkest value or tone. The form shadow makes objects look round, but it never sits on a dark edge of an object.

Orange under the directional light showing the form shadow.

Cast shadows

The cast shadow is situated right under the object and is always attached to it. Cast shadows give physical presence to objects. Look at the picture below to see the cast shadows. They are usually rather dark, but their outside edges remain soft, which is important to copy while shading. Objects themselves can have sharp edges; their cast shadows can’t. 

Placement of Cast Shadows

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Finding shadows

While we have no problem spotting the cast shadows on a table under fruit, candles or vases, we do often find it difficult to pinpoint the location of the form shadow present on the object itself.

Directional light can help you find the form shadow. In still life drawing, play with the light from your light source — try a table lamp so it’s easily moveable. You’ll see a variety of form shadows and cast shadows as the light moves, making it easier to identify the shadows when it’s time to draw.

Form shadow on a pumpkin

After that, look at the setup and ask yourself if it looks exciting to draw. Dramatic lighting makes a big difference in drawing. Sometimes, the cast shadows can be more fun to draw than the object itself!

Distribution of Light

Artists pay attention to these shadows not only in still life objects but also in landscape drawing and portraiture.

Cast Shadows OutdoorsForm Shadow on a Tree

Not every object conforms to the same concept of drawing shadows explained above. For instance, drawing reflective objects or surfaces often requires a different approach or formula to create realistic, 3-D illusion on paper. Regardless, being able to understand where shadows come from and how they fall is the first step to drawing even the most complex shadows.

How to draw shadows step-by-step

Now that you understand the types of shadows and where to find them, it’s time to put them on the page. Before we get started, think carefully about your subject. To practice, draw just one object, like a fruit, kitchen utensil, leaf or flower.

As you set up your still life, focus on lighting and composition. Strong, directional light works best for the beginners and intermediate artists who want to practice drawing shadows. Composition is a matter of preference: Is your object big enough? Of the right shape and direction? What’s the position of it on paper in relation to its background space? Is either the object or its shadow falling off the page? If it still looks boring, what about capturing an unusual point of view?

Once you’ve set up the scene, follow the steps below to draw a well-shaded object.

Pear shading

Step 1:

Sketch out the outline. 

Step 2:

Drawing any subject starts from shading the darkest shadows first. In the second step, above, I shade the form shadow on a pear and a cast shadow under the fruit.

Step 3:

Fill in the middle tones and blend the graphite with a paper stump if necessary.

Step 4:

In the final step, layer strokes to create smooth transitions between the values. Draw from dark to light to create contrast and drama. Add details to define the texture — I added random dots for my pear. Use the kneaded eraser to pull out the highlights (the lightest lights) on the lightest side of the object and to clean up the background. 

Varnish with a final spray fixative for dry media.

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