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Shading Lessons From An Amateur Artist: Substance and Distance

Updated on April 11, 2010

Sense of Substance

When drawing any subject (animate or inanimate), typical use of shading will indicate, at the very least, some measure of dimensionality, as well as position and intensity of lighting. Varying degrees of shade will show varying levels of shadow, suggesting different surface angles relative to the light. But, with a little more time invested in the drawing, it would be possible to add a tactile sense to the subject.

In the process of adding a tactile sense or a sense of "substance" to the subject of a drawing, it would be helpful to adjust the way you interpret what you see when viewing a subject for drawing. In considering the subject, compare it against the white of the paper you're drawing on. (If you're not drawing on white paper, it may be helpful to think of the empty space as a void against which you wish to show substance. That always helped me when I wasn't drawing on white paper.) Everything, even an object that is pure white, has some measure of shadow if you think of the white of the paper as the condition of glowing. If the subject you're drawing is not glowing, then some shade should be used to represent that. (On a non-white drawing surface, apply shade to everything that is not void, regardless of color.)

In the process of rendering the subject, (especially if it's light in color), a very light foundational shade should be applied to the drawing of the subject. This would probably be best done with a 4H pencil, going darker as needed. All other shades should be gauged against the foundational shade instead of white (or whatever the color of the paper, board, or canvas is.) However dark the foundational shade is should be governed by the darkness or color (if you're drawing in color) of the subject.

Spatial Distance (Depth of Field In A Medium)

The basic technique of using the horizon line and vanishing points to show distance between subjects is relatively simple and can easily be applied with little or no thought for shading when you're shading only to show the position of the light source.  But, there is an extra dimension to distance (depth of field) that can be shown by shading according to the existence of a medium like humidity, some kind of mist, or even the air itself. 

There is a simple application of shading that will illustrate varying volumes of the surrounding medium (humidity, mist, or just air).  The mechanics of the application hinges on the levels of visibility in the surrounding medium.  Ordinarily, things like mist, fog, or humidity are pretty much barely visible at best, unless they are present in significant quantities per unit of space.  Their volume is usually gauged by how much they impede vision instead of how much they can be seen themselves.  Herein lies the key to the application of shading to accomodate the presence of such a medium in a drawing.  This application requires some mental gauging as, unlike linear perspective, there is little in the direction of visual ques to use as a reference for indicating distance in your drawing.  There are variables to consider like distance between subjects in the drawing, volume or quantity of medium per unit of space, and in some cases, the position of the medium relative to the subjects in the drawing. 

There's a way to perform this application for both simple and detailed drawings for any set of environmental variables.  But the application itself is rather basic.  Shading for any subject in the immediate foreground would most likely be the same as you would render in the absense of a medium.  That subject would be your basic reference for shading subects in the middle and/or background.  Depending on the distance from the foreground subject and the volume per unit of space of the medium, the shading of the subject in the distance will be shaded lighter and by a lighter standard.  How much lighter will be dependent on the space between subjects.  For the subject in the middleground/background, the darkest part of the subject, though shaded lighter, will still be the darkest part of that subject, just as it would be if it were in the foreground.  In order to preserve the illusion of distance in a medium, no other part of the subject should appear darker.  The medium is indicated by the lightness of the subjects in it, rather than by rendered indication like extra shading, unless the medium is smoke, or some kind of opaque or unreflective gas.  If the subject in the background is behind the medium (like the moon at daytime), then the darkest part of the subject is no darker than the darkest shade seen in the medium.  If the medium has space behind it that is actually unoccupied by the medium, and that space is dark, there'll be some shade applicable to the medium.  That shade will be the standard of shade for any subject in that space seen through the medium.             


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