Note: This is the first in a series of posts about learning how to shade. If you enjoy this one, follow me on Facebook and subscribe to my newsletter to get updates!
So you can draw. You can draw really well, actually. You can draw robots, superheroes, farm animals, landscapes of a dystopian future city, all kinds of stuff. And the line art looks totally badass. It’s just that…it’s only line art. You can’t take any of your drawings to the next level and make them look real. You can’t give them that presence that makes them seem like they’re actually realistic representations of things, ready to jump off the page, or send you on your way towards a lucrative illustration gig. In other words, you don’t know how to shade your drawings.
You see work by other artists, maybe industry professionals, or maybe just in someone’s Deviantart profile, that exhibits a firm understanding of shading and you feel the soul-crushing, existential agony of inadequacy. And the absolute worst part of it is, you want to get there, but you don’t know how. You’ve tried to get there. You’ve done your homework, looked around on the internet, consumed a lot of relevant material regarding shading, and light, and shadow, and tried to begin applying it to your own drawings. But it never looks believable, and it’s not getting better. You worry that some people just get it, and you’re not one of them. You’re starting to think about going to law school.
If anything in the above paragraph resonates with you, this is a post for you. I write this post in the hopes that it can be a beacon of light for those who, like I was, are completely at a loss as to how to move forward. I want this to be the post for others that I so desperately searched for myself.
I will be completely honest with you. What this post will do for you is shine a light on your path forward, show you what you need to do and more importantly make you believe that it’s in your capacity to do it. Self-confidence is a delicate thing, especially when it comes to art, and while reading this post may not solve your shading from imagination problems, I think it will go a long way towards boosting your faith in yourself and solidifying your resolve to push forward on your journey.
You may have gone to art school, or you might be self-taught. It’s perfectly possible to make it through art school and still be struggling with this issue, because the art school ways of talking about this process, unless presented to you by an absolute sage, are extremely lacking in their capacity to convey understanding (you had one job, art school ways of talking about this process). In fact, that’s the point I want to make right now. The traditional methods of explaining light, shadow, and its effects on form just aren’t up to the task. They don’t really survive the translation to being applied to real or imagined objects that aren’t either A.) uselessly simple or B.) right in front of you. I am basically talking about the two traditional ways that understanding light and shadow are presented: the observational drawing, and the academic diagram.
Without light and shadow, no drawing can have a sense of realism. After all, there are no lines in nature. We recognize faces, gauge distances, and perceive shape by processing what light’s doing to the objects around us. And the ability to capture the properties of light and the way they behave when striking objects in your drawings is absolutely, without question, the difference between good art and mediocre art. The problem, as I see it, is that there doesn’t seem to be any readily available, openly discussed way to translate diagrams and observational drawing to shading from imagination. People who have trouble with shading from imagination can’t see that intermediate step, and don’t know what they need to do to resolve the seeming gulf between what they understand and can do, and what they don’t understand and want to be able to do.
THE QUEST FOR THE INTERMEDIATE STEP
That’s precisely the predicament I found myself in when I started to get serious about my art, and it honestly seemed like I was the only person in the entire universe who had this problem. I couldn’t remember it ever coming up in any art class, I didn’t know any fellow artists who had it, and I couldn’t find a soul even on the internet talking about it, and I looked EVERYWHERE. What I did find were tons of people drawing amazing alien sharkgators and then rendering them and painting them so convincingly that it looked like they’d had an alien sharkgator right in front of them as reference.
I thought I was going crazy. So I posted to forums, and engaged in the art community, hoping that if I put the question out there and spoke frankly about it myself, someone could point me in the right direction. What I found, instead, is that the artists who had no problems achieving convincingly rendered fictional drawings were absolutely gobsmacked when it comes to explaining how they’re able to do it. I just don’t think most artists parse it out separately from the rest of their art training as a uniquely difficult, possibly the most difficult, part of being good at art. Answers ranged from the completely unacceptable (“use references, dude!”) to the baffling (arcane diagrams of the planes of Einstein’s face). And thus, the reason for this post. The people who need to learn how to do it have zero resources available to them. The people who can teach them don’t really know how to.
And it was in this exact aspect of it that I finally started to put together the answer. When person A can do something really well and person B, of similar resources and capabilities, can’t, and person A can’t pass their knowledge on to person B, what is the nature of that knowledge? Raw talent? In rare cases, sure, but riding a bike fits this hypothetical scenario perfectly, and riding a bike doesn’t require any talent that I know of. But can you explain to someone how to ride a bike? Can you conceptualize a method of educating someone, step by step, the process involved in learning how to ride a bike? Not really…you can give them pointers, but but you’re most likely just going to tell them to keep trying.
THE INTERMEDIATE STEP IS PRACTICE
Yes, I said the dreaded P word. But before you hit the close button on this tab with the fury of a thousand bloodworm-infested Strain vampires, please hear me out. I didn’t lead you all this way just to tell you you need to practice more. Hopefully, by getting to this point, and sharing with you my personal struggles and doubts, I’ve earned your confidence and trust. And more importantly, you identify with exactly what I was dealing with, because it’s what you’re dealing with yourself. So when I tell you to practice, it’s different. (...I’m not like the others)
I’m also going to elaborate on why practice is the solution, and I’m going to do it in a way that demystifies the process and gives you a better understanding of how it does, in fact take you from point A to point B. I want you to see how practice solves the problem, and get you excited to practice. This, again is where traditional art education fails and advice from pros usually falls short. They can’t unpack the word “practice”, so it’s a dirty word, a brick wall erected right in the middle of your path to rockstar artistry. “Practicing still lifes just makes me really good at still lifes, and I’m already good at those,” you say, so “practice” just sounds like a total cop-out designed to keep you from getting any good.
DE-DIRTYING THE WORD “PRACTICE”
That’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t want to look at more diagrams of lights hitting cylinders, and I didn’t want to hear people telling me to practice more. Practicing wasn’t helping. I wanted the keys to the kingdom. I wanted something that could be downloaded and put in a reference folder, or a book to read that addressed the leap from observational drawing to creative drawing.
I didn’t want to hear people telling me to practice “better” either. And to be honest, practicing better is not the answer. You’ve probably seen or been given this advice by people who know what they’re doing—practice better. Work on your still lifes smarter. Don’t just copy—pay attention to why the light is doing what it’s doing. And this sounds like the missing link. Because you were totally just copying before. But I’m going to go Guerrilla Contrarian here and argue that this is actually not the solution at all. Why? Because it's still an academic presentation of something that needs to be learned intuitively. It’s right-brained advice. The people giving it, who no doubt want to help and have the skills you crave, or you wouldn’t be soliciting advice from them anyway, are essentially putting the cart before the horse. You can’t practice better until you’ve got a base of internalized understanding. You don't go to the DIY bikeshop in the yuppie district and start building your own fixie until you know how to ride a bike.
Sitting there trying to analyze why this cheek is lighter here and darker there, without first conditioning your brain to predict it first, see it second, and then think about the context of it is bonkers. Trying to understand how light operates on an academic level just doesn’t seem to work. It’s something you have to encode into your brain, opening new neural pathways through repeated exposure to objects in different lighting situations until you just intuitively understand how light and shadow work. We now know about neuroplasticity - the idea that repeated behavior or exposure to information (or chemicals) can actually change how your brain works.
This is why practice is the solution, really the only the solution, and a solution that should now seem full of possibility and enjoyment instead of that brick wall of despair. Understanding is born through experience. Just draw. Literally, that’s it. And enjoy yourself while you’re drawing. Draw what you want to draw. Don’t spend the whole time grappling with the subtleties of planar gradation or struggling miserably to understand on an academic level why eyelid A is getting so much light when eyelid B is the one closer to the source, because A.) you probably won’t and B.) is that really how to want to draw anyway? Hell no. You want to not have to think about it. Like a guitar player shredding a solo, you don’t want to be standing there analyzing if you should play a G or an A note next. You want your mind free to be tackling creative and artistic problems. You want the realism on autopilot. This is why you want to bake how light works into your brain organically.
Just draw, and your brain will gradually catch up with your eyes and at some point you will, I promise, be able to reproduce a convincing lighting situation without having to draw something in front of you. With enough application, you can shade a zombie vampire pirate with two heads just as realistically as you can shade a stupid apple sitting on your desk with a lamp on it.
BUT THE GUY ON YOUTUBE SAID ALWAYS DO RIM LIGHTING!
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are some right-brain tricks that most artists pick up at some point that help exponentially “boost” the credibility of their light and shadow work. I’m not at all suggesting that they are a substitute for the thorough understanding of light that comes from practice, but they are extremely helpful for sealing the deal, so to speak (or for pushing across the finish line a rendering that’s halfway there).
However, I wanted this post to be a brief (well, parts of it were brief), encouraging, call to action, and I think to get into any one of these additional "cheats" in sufficient detail would be better accomplished in a separate, or series of separate posts, which will definitely be forthcoming. (Speaking of call to action! If you’d like to be notified of these posts as they roll out, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter on the right sidebar. In it will be a breakdown of the past month’s post as well as any new tips and possibly even some cool stuff like new brushes or icon sets. So you’ll be sure not to miss any of my future posts on shading from imagination, where I get into detail about some of these tricks.) I will throw out a few quick tips here though:
1. FIGURE DRAWING. Until you’re at the point where your shading is on point and it’s time to start learning about material properties and specularity, forego the wine bottles and coffee cups for the natural curves angles and shapes of the human body. That is definitely the place to start learning about light sides and dark sides and hard and soft edges.
2. USE A TONED CANVAS. This mostly applies to digital painting, but starting with a mid-tone as an all-over base can really help grease your ability to perceive contrasting values. When you’re starting with a white page, there’s nowhere to go except darker, and that makes the process more difficult.
3. TOP-LEFT LIGHTING. When you start trying to apply what you’re learning to your own drawings, just stick with the time-tested artists’ favorite lighting source. It gives you everything you need to work with in learning to describe form. Save the fancy stuff, like backlighting and ambient lighting for once you have a firmer grasp on things.
I just want to remind you all that I am far, far away from where I’d like to be with my own understanding of light and shadow and I’m writing these to you as a fellow traveller, inviting you to come on the journey and sharing what I’ve learned already, as I’m learning it. I think this has two advantages: firstly, that we can all compare notes, share our experiences and make this an enriching, enjoyable process as well as potentially deepen all of our understanding in the way that comes only from shared experience and conversation. Secondly, as I pointed out earlier, it seems like once people cross a certain threshold they can no longer speak (helpfully) about the process of light and shadow. They’ve reached the baking point and come out of the kiln, you might say. Thirdly, they probably wouldn’t use amazingly terrible art puns and metaphors, and that makes learning fun. But for real —sometimes the best learning comes from your fellow student, and that’s what I’m offering you here.
So get motivated, get to practicing, and stop by here periodically and I’ll do my absolute best to provide you guys with more material and encouragement. And please, please, feel free to comment, share your work, link to your site or post with any questions you might have. I hope we can get as many people moving in the right direction as possible, together.
Thanks for reading and good luck!