Drawing Lights and Shadows – What to Know Before You Begin

Gone are the days of drawing stick figures standing by two dimensional houses. Now that you’re a more mature artist, you’re going to want to learn how to make things seem a bit more realistic than that.

For this reason, you’ll need to learn how to draw things in a way that makes them appear three dimensional, even though it’s truly just a flat drawing.

This is one of those times where you’ll need to do a bit of trial and error to get things right. In order portray things accurately you need to know how to draw with lights and shadows, and this takes some experimenting.

Looking at the World like an Artist

As an average human being, you probably take your eyesight and perspective for granted. You don’t question how you know that book across the room is three dimensional; your eyes simply tell you it is. But how do you actually know? If you’ve even been to a museum of optical illusions, you know that it’s possible to trick your eyes into believing something untrue.

Skilled artists are able to paint murals on walls that would convince someone at a distance they could walk straight through it. This is done with clever use of light and shadows. So when you decide to start mastering this skill in your work, you need to pay more attention to what you’re seeing.

When you look around the room you’re in, let your eyes stop on certain objects. Study how the light hits them, where their shadows fall, and their variation in color because of the light. Open your eyes and view the world like an artist.

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Understanding Value

Most of the time, when your eyes tell you an object is three dimensional, it’s because you’re seeing changes in value and shadows. Value is the range of contrasts one hue can have. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand.

Imagine you poured some blue paint out onto a palette. Now mix some pure black paint into it. You’ve just changed its value, as it is now a darker version of the same blue. If you mix a lot of white into it, you’d get a lighter version. All of the versions on the spectrum of light to dark for this color are called its values.

When you look at an object, notice how its value changes depending on how the light hits it. Lighter areas are called highlights (just like with hair). Darker values are the ones more in shadow, and will give you a clue as to where the light is hitting the object. Even more helpful than darker values in determining the light source is cast shadow.

Cast shadow is what we normally think of as shadow—the Peter Pan version that seems to attach to the bottom of something and lean outward from it. The way light hits an object is what is telling us it’s three dimensional. Mastering light in an artistic work is mastering the dimensions.

So before you put pencil to paper, take these things into consideration. You must truly be able to see an object for what it actually is in order to draw it effectively, and that means taking a harder look than you usually would at the world around you.


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