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Learning Shading, Step By Step, From An Amateur Artist

Updated on May 29, 2013

Starting out, it should be understood that what is discussed and shown demonstrated here is done with pencil and pencil only. The use of shading accessories such as tortillions, tissues, brushes, etc. I consider to be in the realm of a more advanced artist than myself. My thinking is that, in the development of usable shading skills, it is best to develop sound foundational skill in the use of the pencil itself in the production of an even tone across a large area. Having developed said skill, the next logical step would be to develop the ability to systematically or randomly manipulate the lightness or darkness of that tone in any given part of the toned area. Having developed this ability, one can be more effective in the use of the artist’s choice of shading accessories.

Secondly, I’d like to point out that every artist has their own particular style in the production of all or any given part of a drawing. While I have found what I demonstrate here to be effective for my own purposes, another artist may have or know of a more effective way of executing any tasks demonstrated here. Also, whatever is demonstrated here could also be a stepping stone to the development of an individual style as, in the course of exploring what is discussed here, one might discover a method that works better for them personally. If this is the case, I would strongly encourage the exploration or use of any variation on what is here demonstrated that seems to work better.

Basic Set Of Tools To Begin With

For the best results, a wide range of grades of graphite is recommended. Though I typically make use of grades ranging from 4H to 6B, for the purposes of shading, I generally use grades ranging only from 2H to 4B. Though there are instances of tonal extremes where I have used graphite outside this range, I get the best results staying within it. Leads harder than 2H I generally reserve for outlining. Leads softer than 4B I reserve for extremely dark tones. While a standard eraser is good to have under any circumstances, I’ve gotten the most use out of kneaded erasers. (I usually combine two or three of them together for more grip and control.) They can become an integral part of the shading process.

For instances where you may be shading smaller areas, or, for shaded areas of detail, you may find the use of a mechanical pencil helpful. For myself, mechanical pencils are particularly useful in producing sharp borders between areas of different levels of shading or between shaded and unshaded areas. Because mechanical pencil points maintain a consistent size, the amount of pressure per level of tonal consistency remains constant. Also, less pressure is required to produce darker tones. Under these circumstances it may not be necessary to use matching grades of graphite for the mechanical pencil. In my own work, I only use HB and 2B graphite leads in my mechanical pencils. These two grades of graphite are generally enough for me to produce the desired levels of tonality, regardless of any extreme.

Typical zig-zag or "hatch" pattern of shading
Typical zig-zag or "hatch" pattern of shading
Short, circular stroke pattern for shading
Short, circular stroke pattern for shading
Short, circular stroke with medium manual pressure on heavy-weight drawing paper with 2B graphite.
Short, circular stroke with medium manual pressure on heavy-weight drawing paper with 2B graphite.
Textured appearance from heavy-weight drawing paper is due more to the grain of the paper.
Textured appearance from heavy-weight drawing paper is due more to the grain of the paper.
Textured appearance from smooth-surface paper is due more to the stroke of the pencil.
Textured appearance from smooth-surface paper is due more to the stroke of the pencil.
Pre-shading with a lighter grade of graphite can soften the textured appearance of the darker grade.
Pre-shading with a lighter grade of graphite can soften the textured appearance of the darker grade.

Step One: Shading In A Single Tone

There are a couple of things you might want to take into consideration before you begin. First and foremost, of course, is the desired final result with respect to the tone you wish to produce. Part of this consideration is the type and grade of paper you are using or intend to use. Different types and grades of paper produce different effects with respect to the appearance of the tone. The differences in the paper will have an effect on what you get out of each of the respective grades of graphite. Now, it’s here that I’d like to point out that, regardless of the type of paper used, there’s going to be some variety of textured appearance in the tone. So, it would be a good idea to have an understanding of what’s going to happen with a given combination of grades of graphite and paper. An understanding of what’s going to happen with any of these will help with any desired texture (or lack thereof).

The next thing to consider is the grade of graphite you’re going to use respective to the darkness (or lightness) of the tone you wish to produce. Now, at first glance, this may seem a bit straightforward. But, I’ve discovered that, depending on the type or brand of paper you use, the tonal strength of the graphite can be affected. From what I’ve observed, the affect is usually very small. In fact, it’s often quite negligible. But, it can have a significant enough effect to make it necessary to reevaluate your use of varying grades of graphite. (This is something that will have to be individually determined. Differences in tonal requirements will most likely be individual to the needs of each respective artist.)

One other thing to take into consideration is the amount of manual pressure you’re going to apply in the development of your shading tone. Now, this is definitely something that’s pretty much completely dependent on the individual needs and preferences of the artist. Also, as it’s something that typically isn’t known ahead of time, it might be prudent (if possible) to work that out by creating some test tones before working on the actual drawing. Doing so with the actual materials you intend to use in your final drawing will help you determine how to proceed before you begin your final work. Otherwise, after you’ve begun shading, if you determine that your tone is too dark, you can use a kneaded eraser to lighten it to your preference. If, like me, your ability to maintain consistent pressure across the area being shaded is limited, continued use of a kneaded eraser will be helpful in dealing with any recurring excesses in pressure that may cause tonal inconsistencies.

I have found that, in the actual process of shading, the size and form of the stroke with which you shade can have a positive effect on the shading you produce. The most typical form of shading that I’ve seen used consists of a zig-zag pattern (hatch) drawn across the area being shaded in one or more (cross-hatch) directions. For myself, I’ve found that using a short, circular stroke is particularly effective when it comes to producing an even tone. This technique used on appropriate combinations of grade of graphite and paper has produced results that have been described as rather impressive.

On smooth surface papers, the tonal results are a little bit different. On textured surface papers there is a textured appearance to the shading that corresponds to the grain of the paper. While the same is the case with smooth surface papers, you’ll find that the textured appearance to the shading there is due more so to the stroke of the pencil than it is to the paper. And, while it is possible to compensate for it with a kneaded eraser, the process of doing so is significantly more involved and time consuming. (I have found in a number of instances that shading in a lighter grade of graphite before applying the final grade for the desired tone can serve to soften the textured appearance of the darker graphite. This has also turned out to be highly dependent on the type or brand of paper used for the drawing. But, again, compensation with a kneaded eraser will be necessary to even out the tone in any case. This has proven useful in doing portraiture and forms of fine art.)

Gradating Process

Gradated shading, done well, can make for some interesting designs.
Gradated shading, done well, can make for some interesting designs.

Step Two: Gradating Shade From One Area To Another

Gradation shading can be done just as effectively using some of the above mentioned techniques. The short circular stroke and compensation with the kneaded eraser can be used just as effectively in the production of a gradated area of shading. The manual pressure with which tones are regulated has now become subject to constant change with progress across the area being shaded. And, if the tones are extreme, the grades of graphite required will also be subject to change. The rates at which these changes must occur will be determined by the size of the area to be shaded and the target tones of different points within the area to be shaded.

When the change in the tonality of the shading requires a change in the grade of graphite, in order to make the change over appear smooth, the new grade of graphite should be applied to begin matching the tone last shown in the previous grade of graphite. In a gradation change from light to dark, when changing from one grade to a darker grade, the darker grade will have to be applied lightly in order to match the previous tone, increasing the pressure and darkening the tone as the drawing continues. Inversely, in a gradation change from dark to light, when changing from one grade to a lighter grade, the lighter grade will have to be applied heavily in order to match the previous tone, decreasing the pressure and lightening the tone as the drawing continues.

Now, what has just been described is what would be required if a single continuous gradation from complete light to complete dark were in order. But, most drawings don’t have many areas that fit this description. For the most part, detailed drawings contain areas of shading that are relatively dynamic. While most of the areas of shading in any given drawing involve variation within the range of a single grade of graphite, there will be areas, large and small, that will require graphite grade changes for smooth change-overs across diverse areas of light and dark, particularly where the tone changes are extreme. Drawings involving great detail, realist drawings in particular, can be quite demanding with respect to dynamic tonality. Exercises involving gradation shading might be helpful in developing a proficiency with the kind of shading extremes that one might encounter in a highly involved drawing.

I have found that practicing gradations can be productive in more ways than one. To develop an eye for even tone change and to get the feel for the change in manual pressure in the production of smooth tonal variation, there is a useful and (to myself, at least) entertaining exercise. Many years ago, when I studied black and white design, I was introduced to a form of design that utilized gradations exclusively. From time to time I’ve been using this design form as an exercise to improve and maintain my ability to see and make smooth tonal change-overs by means of manual pressure changes and alternating grades of graphite. The exercise involves a simple but organized system of lines and shapes (lines produced by stencil, ruler, and/or compass) drawn to form a grid of spaces to be shaded from end to the other, from light to dark, one end being white (the color of the paper), and the other end being black (as dark as the darkest graphite being used). I usually shade the spaces in opposite directions to each other. Doing this, if the gradation is done well, will produce the illusion of substance by light and shadow. I’ve found the process rather exciting. The designs that result can be quite interesting.

Exercises of this kind are pretty much only basic and find their best usefulness at the beginning of one’s investigation of basic pencil shading. Of course, the best exercise to be found is in the rendering of the very drawings that demand these kinds of shading techniques. That’s where personal adaptations and techniques are developed and the artist becomes more advanced.


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