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Drawing 101: Seeing Light and Shadows

Drawing 101: Seeing Light and Shadows

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Knowing where and how to draw light and shadows can turn shapes into forms, such as a circle into a sphere, and give your drawing life and depth. Figuring out where light and shadow is in your drawing isn’t tricky, but it does take practice. In this guide, you’ll learn how to see the lights and shadows and how to transfer what you see to the paper.

Where Is the Light?

Light shows you where to draw shading so you can transform a circle into a sphere. In the drawing below, notice what happens to a line drawing of a circle when the various components of light and shadows are added with shading.

Notice what happens to a line drawing of a circle when the various components of light and shadows are added with shading.

Highlighting the Highlight

Light source refers to the direction from which a dominant light originates. A light source identifies the light and shadow areas of a drawing subject, so you know where to draw shading. A highlight is the brightest area on a form and is usually the section closest to the light source.

In the next drawing, a sphere helps illustrate a highlight. The highlight is the white circular shape in the center of the lightest shading. Those surfaces of the sphere that are closer to or in the shadowed areas are shaded with darker values.

The brightest section on a form is called a highlight.

The brightest section on a form is called a highlight.

Highlights can help make forms look three-dimensional. In the next drawing of a nose, you find highlights on the center section and on the wing over one nostril (on the left).

Highlights accentuate the spherical forms of a child’s nose.

Highlights accentuate the spherical forms of a child’s nose.

Dark Values in Shadow

Sections of a form that receive little light need to be shaded with dark values. The darkest shading on the surface of a form tends to be in areas that are farthest away from the light source, and/or where the light has been blocked by the form itself (or another object).

In the next drawing, look for the dark crescent-shaped shadow on the lower right of the sphere.

The shading becomes progressively darker, from the highlight to the crescent-shaped shadow section.

The shading becomes progressively darker, from the highlight to the crescent-shaped shadow section.

A whole side of a face or body can be drawn in shadow. Examine the shading in the next drawing of a young man’s face. Observe how the dark values of the shadows give form to various sections of his face such as his nose, mouth area, and chin.

Shadows accentuate the forms of various parts of this young man’s face.

Shadows accentuate the forms of various parts of this young man’s face.

Reflected Light

Reflected light is a faint light reflected or bounced back on an object from the surfaces close to and around it. Reflected light is especially noticeable on a sphere. Check out the spherical segment in the next drawing and observe the rim of light shading on the lower right. In this particular case, the reflected light (RL) is bouncing back from the light surface on which the sphere is sitting.

A tiny rim of reflected light (RL) is shaded with light values.

A tiny rim of reflected light (RL) is shaded with light values.

In the next detail section of a drawing, the muscular forms of a man’s arms are enhanced by adding reflected light along their edges. Observe how the reflected light (on the left) also serves to visually separate the arm from the dark shading of the background.

Reflected light along the edge of muscular arms greatly enhances the three-dimensional forms.

Reflected light along the edge of muscular arms greatly enhances the three-dimensional forms.

Cast Shadows

A cast shadow is a dark section on a surface, close to an object, that receives little or no light. In the next drawing, the light on the adjacent surface has been blocked by the sphere, resulting in a cast shadow. The values of the cast shadow are darkest right next to the sphere’s lower edge and become gradually lighter farther away from the sphere.

The darkest values in the cast shadow are closest to the sphere.

The darkest values in the cast shadow are closest to the sphere.

In the next sketch, a nose casts a dark shadow onto the lower-right section of the face. The shadow also anchors the nose so you can tell it’s attached to the face. Shadows tend to be very similar in shape to whatever is blocking the light (in this case, a nose).

The section of the cast shadow closest to the nose is the darkest.

The section of the cast shadow closest to the nose is the darkest.

How and where you draw a cast shadow can create the illusion that objects are either touching or separated from adjacent surfaces (or other objects). The first sphere in the next drawing is sitting on the surface. The cast shadow is touching its lower edge. However, the other two seem to be floating, because the shadows are detached from the spheres.

These shadows create the illusion that the spheres are floating rather than sitting on a surface.

These shadows create the illusion that the spheres are floating rather than sitting on a surface.

Have a look at the shadows cast on a child’s forehead by individual strands of hair (in the next drawings). The hair isn’t shaded in the first drawing, making the cast shadows easy to pinpoint. Observe how they make the hair look like it’s sticking out a little rather than resting flat against her forehead.

Thanks to the cast shadows, the hair looks like it’s sticking out a little from the head.

Thanks to the cast shadows, the hair looks like it’s sticking out a little from the head.

Now that you can determine light and shadows, your drawings will be even more spectacular! For more drawing instruction, check out our Quick Guides How to Draw Eyes and Drawing 101: Shading Techniques. Have fun!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Drawing People Illustrated by Brenda Hoddinott