Will Kemp Art School

A Beginners Guide to Light & Shadow – Part 1


Cezanne, Oil on Canvas, still life with seven apples, 1878

Ever felt frustrated having worked so hard on a drawing – only to find it still looks ‘flat’?

Is it the proportions? The perspective? Perhaps the composition?

Whilst these all play an integral part, the most effective method of making your drawings appear three dimensional, is understanding how light logic works.

If line drawing creates the proportions, handling of tone creates the form.

The theory seems simple and the changes in technique small, but applying the principles of how tone, light and shade work, will improve the illusion of form in every drawing you do – regardless of the subject.

And the exciting part about it is, once you ‘get’ lighting, the principles never change.

In Part 1 of this 3 Part series ( Part 2 – Drawing shading demonstration ) we look at the theory, the drawing and then paint a simple form focusing on shadow, light and edges.

You might find it isn’t your drawing technique that’s wrong, but your lighting…

How does light behave when it hits a form?


If we’re using one single light source.

The problem is most of the time at home, you don’t have one single light source, you have a comfy chair, a cup of tea and 10 minutes to sketch your dog. There’s multiple lights coming from above, window lights and maybe lights from a t.v or reading light.

Just by the nature of the lighting setup we have in our homes, it makes it really difficult to achieve a dramatic drawing successfully.

To make something look three dimensional, you need the light to do the work for you – rather than your pencil.

Now I’m the first one to be drawn to my sketchpad whilst enjoying a brew in my lounge, but note the word ‘sketch’.

Sketching really helps you to keep your eye practiced and your creativity flowing and I do it every day.

But when I want to work up one of my sketches into a more developed drawing, I would have a more conscious approach to the lighting setup, composition and design of the piece.

Creating the illusion of form using multiple light sources is difficult because the effect of the light falling on an object is more confused, softer and introduces new shapes that don’t behave consistently with the object we’re looking at.

So I’ve found the easiest way to learn about light and shadow is by using one hard, single light. It could be the sun, a light through a window or an artificial light.

A hard light clearly demonstrates each distinct area to be aware of, exaggerating the widest tonal range and when you’re a beginner it’s the simplest way to see the difference between the tones.

So for this 3 Part Series, we’ll be looking at single lighting set ups demonstrating the theory of form on a sphere.

Learning simple form principles will enable you to see the fundamental shapes of which all of nature is comprised. The cone, the cube, the cylinder and the sphere.

The principles we’ll look at on the sphere, can be applied to the curve of a cheek, the fullness of a teapot or vase and I’ll be putting them into practice on a drawing of an apple next week.

Light Logic Using a Single Light Source

drawings shadows

Light always travels in a straight line.

The shadows that are made by the light are always in a direct response to whatever the light hits, whatever angle the light is coming from and the intensity of the light source.

So if bright, high sunshine hits a tree directly from above, it makes a short shadow shape, that doesn’t necessarily help you as an artist to describe the subject.

Later in the day when the sun is very low, it will make a longer more interesting shadow shape, usually more representative of the essence of the tree and the presence of light.

If a single light hits a cube, it will make a square shape – if a single light hits a sphere, an ellipse shape.

This is called ‘light logic’ and the shadow produced is called a Cast Shadow.


Cast Shadow

The characteristics of the cast shadow are dependent on the intensity of the light source. A hard light will produce a cast shadow with a sharp edge, a soft light will produce a cast shadow with a more blurry edge.

The longer the cast shadow is from the object, the softer the edge of the shadow becomes. Notice how the cast shadow is darkest right underneath the sphere and then it gets lighter and lighter as it goes out further away from the light source.

Also a cast shadow behaves predictability when on a flat surface, but when there are other levels or surfaces in the shadows path, the shape can be altered depending on the surface over which it falls.


This is one of the first things to check on your drawings and paintings. Do the shadow shapes logically sit with the subject and the lighting?

It’s all about being aware of where the light is coming from and is it consistent with your picture.

Once you understand the basics of how light behaves, it is quite encouraging to think that a small amount of information can give you the knowledge needed to convincingly portray the illusion of form with any subject.

The 3 areas of a form:

When you’re first starting you just need to think of the three simple areas of the form:

1. Light side – This includes the Highlight and the Halftones.

The Highlight is the lightest part where the light directly hits the object.

The Halftones are always going to be lighter than any value on the shadow side and blend into the shadow side (sometimes they can be split into light half tones and dark half tones)

2. Shadow side – This includes the Form Shadow, the Form Shadow Core and Reflected light.

The Form Shadow Core is the darkest part of the shadow, the rest of the Form Shadow is made up of dark tones that blend away from the core shadow into the reflected light, if there is any.

Reflected light is the light reflected onto the subject, from the surface it sits on or ambient light around the object.

3. Cast shadow – This has 3 parts.

The darkest part that sits directly under the object, the mid tone that makes up the majority of the cast shadow shape and the lightest, softest tail of the cast shadow

Creating the shadow line

sphere shadowline

The shadow line is the transition between the light side and the shadow side.

This can have many names, bed-bug line, shadow line, terminator, form shadow line to name a few. The main thing to remember is to keep each area clearly defined.

Keeping your light tones in the light side and your darks in the shadows whilst maintaining a soft transition between the two is what we’re trying to achieve.

This seems obvious but making the smooth transition between the lights and the darks is no mean feat as the shadow line actually falls over quite a small area and not forgetting probably the most tricky thing – retaining the fullness of the globe shape.

What can happen is you gently lighten your pencil marks and try to build up a nice blend.

The problem is the darker side spreads, it creeps, you work harder and harder, you then think your eraser will fix it.

It didn’t.

Now the darks have a too severe edge and you’ve started to lose the lovely shape you first had. Your shadow line has gone North, your light logic has now become illogical and your light side has become darker with all that flurry of blending!

It is tricky but it just requires practice and a few techniques that we’ll look more in depth at next week.

The Light Side


The Highlight is the very lightest part. It’s where the light directly hits the object so is the best indicator when you look at your subject to determine where and at what angle the light is coming from.

Highlights make the drawing come to life.

The Halftones blend into the shadow side and make the highlight appear white. They are always lighter in value than the lightest value on the shadow side.

The Shadow Side


If a Cast Shadow is always hard (albeit with blurry edges sometimes) a Form Shadow is soft.

It is the dark side on an object not facing the light that reveals the form and mass of the shape.

The very darkest point within the Form Shadow is called the Form Shadow Core.

It falls under the Shadow Line (or Terminator) on the dark side and is where there is no light hitting the surface.

It blends into the rest of the Form Shadow which is lighter in value because reflected or ambient light within the scene.

The Allure of Reflected Light


Reflected light is when the light is reflected onto an object, from the surface it sits on. White or shiny surfaces reflect the most light, dark or black surfaces reflect the least amount of light.

The sphere above is sitting on a matte white piece of paper.

When you’re first starting drawing it is easy to become obsessed with reflective light, it seems sophisticated and so subtle.

More often than not, what happens is you ‘look into your darks’ too much and over exaggerate how light that area actually is.

You then lose that initial simple light concept we had first established when ‘mapping out’ from a light and shadow side.

Value Strip

You can print out this guide and practice matching the tones with your pencils

When you’re turning a form away from the light, using the tonal value strip above will be invaluable.

Because you will be really tempted to try to use a lighter tone than you need, being able to check your values will enable you to keep the illusion of light consistent.

When reflected light is handled well, it can give your drawings that ‘How did you do that?’ response – so it’s worth taking the time with.

Next week we’re going to put these theories into practice in my studio, where I’ll set up and draw an apple.

When working on three dimensional drawings, the two things I focus on are form and edges. We’ll also create some quick sketches to map shadows and cover drawing techniques on turning a form.

Get the kettle on, your pencils out and as you sketch, start to observe more carefully the light fall and the shadows that are being created and join me next week in the studio.

You Might Also Like:

1.  A Beginners Guide to Light & Shadow : Part 2 – Practical Drawing Tutorial  

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This post has 248 comments.

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Very important info. Thanks!

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You’re welcome Joanne, Cheers, Will

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Thanks again Will for another great post! You are such a gifted artist and teacher! Enjoy your studio time…..Cheers, Liz

Thanks Liz, hope you’re keeping well,

Cheers, Will

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Will Thanks for your generous instruction. You are a gifted teacher as well as artist.

Kind of you to say so Norah, hope you find the article of help.

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Good advice I didn’t know light is only straight line

Good to know it helped Judy!

Also should we but a coat of some kind on acylic paint

I’ll add a materials list for the painting at the end on next weeks lesson.

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This has been really helpful. You explained it so simply. Thanks Will :)

Pleased to hear it Aggie, really hope it helps in your paintings. Cheers, Will

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Thank you Will, great and wonderful information.

Hi Virginia, hope you’re keeping well, thanks for you kind comments.

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Thanks Will for sharing your expertise with us.

You’re welcome Kavita,

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Thank you for the insight. To the shop I go to try and put it into practice, and looking forward to part 2.

Good one Vicki, looking forward to hearing how you get on, Cheers, Will

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Thanks for all your usefull information Debbie

You’re welcome Debbie, Cheers,

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Such rich content in this instruction Will. Clearly laid out – beyond helpful and much appreciated. It’s this kind of generosity that is so helpful to all of us who have chosen this challenging and wondrous path. Look forward to Parts 2/3. Thanks. Lesley

Kind of you to say so Lesley, modelling form can be a bit of an daunting subject, so pleased you found it helpful.

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Thank you. It is information I need to know if am to learn how to draw three dimensionally. B.

You’re welcome Brenda, Cheers, Will

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Will, I have just begun painting, and must say I so enjoy your instruction. It is evident that you have enormous skill. I just love your teaching technique, quite enjoyable….thanks!

Thanks Amy, really hope you’re finding the lessons helpful in your artistic journey! Cheers, Will

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Thanks for this lesson Will. Just what I needed – I’ve not been drawing for very long and my drawings were looking very flat.

You’re welcome Marilyn, hope it helps to bring some form to your drawings.

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Thanks Will. I definitely picked up some tips on lighting and shadows.

All the best

Good one Steve, pleased you found it helpful. Cheers, Will

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Good ibnformation. Thank you for publishing this. I look forward to the next installment.

Thanks Gherry, pleased you enjoyed it. Will

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Invaluable information Will – thanks again!

Cheers Cath, how are your portraits going?

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Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generous instruction!

You’re welcome Patti, really hope you find it helpful.

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Hi Will, I’ve been receiving your emails for some time and have followed several of your painting lessons. I have done watercolors for several years, but your tutorials inspired me to trying acrylics, and I am loving them. Thank you!

Your email today was timely because I have been having troubles when working on landscapes or flowers in photos or when working from my head with deciding what to do about lighting. When I do a still-life with a single light source, I do fine (though I know I’ll gain much more needed information from your lessons.) What I hope to learn, as well, is how to create the proper lighting when it’s not evident and there are several light sources.

Thank you so much for all you’ve taught me. It took me awhile to write, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your generosity with your expertise.

Sincerely, Donna

Thanks for your lovely comment, and pleased you’ve been enjoying experimenting with acrylics. Multiple light sources can be a bit harder, and creating proper lighting from memory can take practice, but as with most things a step at a time and those flower studies will be singing!

Thanks again Donna,

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Thanks very much for the lesson. After I bought your on line course” Aclylic Landscspe Paintinh” I then happened to encounter Henry Hanche,Charles Howthorne,and Camille Przewodek. I really like their color stle and light but I cannot grasp Their teaching. Could yu someday touch/guide those impressionist style art by your style of teaching?

Thanks again for yr sharing.!

You’re welcome Junghwa, you might find this Monet tutorial of interest.

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You explained this topic very clearly. Now if only I can put it into practice!

Thanks Elika, just go through each stage a section at a time and your drawings can really come together. Cheers, Will

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You’re welcome Cheryl. Cheers, Will

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Excellent information as always! Cheers Will!

Thanks Tony, hope you’re doing well.

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Thanks for clear instructions.

You’re welcome Suzi, pleased you found them easy to follow. Will

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Thanks so much for the info. It was enlightening and uncomplicated to read. Thanks again.

Good one Linda,

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Really good instruction. This is encouraging me to get out my pencils and paper EVERY day! Thanks Will

You’re welcome Sarah, Cheers, Will

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This is so important and the way it is presented is so simple that no way you won’t get it. It was extremely helpful. Thanks.

Really pleased to hear it Yona, Thanks. Will

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Thanks for this valuable information. Looking forward to following your articles and lessons.

You’re welcome Judy, pleased you found it helpful. Cheers, Will

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Thanks as always, Will. Look forward to the next segment.

Thanks Helene, hope you’re keeping well. Will

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Hi Will Thanks so much for the great tips. Very helpful. Just what I need to get to grips with. Geraldine

Great to hear it Geraldine, looking forward to seeing your results. Cheers, Will

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Dear Will, thanks for the clarity of writing. the concept of core shadow solves the problem for me. look forward to your style of teaching in the next article.

You welcome Mumtaz, really pleased you enjoyed the article, can’t wait to next week! Cheers,

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Wow, I’m giving you the gold crown. I always hear “define your light source” then that was it. Thank you for this info and your brilliant way of explaining it and laying it out so that I can understand it. So looking forward to what comes next. Cheers-

Thanks Darlene, so please you found it easy to follow and understand.

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Fantastic awesome article with so much essential information. Many thanks Will~ you are a champ! so awesome! Best always Noeleen

Thanks very much Noleen, pleased you enjoyed the article.

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Hi Will, Thank you so much for putting your information out in a way that is easy to understand and follow. I’ve been trying to paint for a couple of years now but haven’t liked anything I’ve done. Some of the books and other reading I have looked at tend to “lose” me with their technical jargon and I just switch off. This is the first email I’ve received from you since subscribing and can see that your “teachings” might be what steers me In the right direction. I look forward to future posts. Many thanks again. Sue

Hi Sue, great have you onboard. So pleased you found the article easy to follow. Lighting can get a bit technical at times but can be so helpful to you painting success. Really hope this lesson can help you to achieve a painting you can be proud of!

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Hi Will This is my first time receiving your posting. I like the way you approach the subject, you made it simple and easy, Thank you .

Hi Khaled, thanks for taking the time to comment, and so pleased you enjoyed the simple approach to the subject of form. Hope you’re looking forward to next week’s lesson.

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I’ m new here, and enjoying it already!

Hi Christine, nice to have you on board, really pleased you enjoyed it.

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Hi Will, thank you for such a detailed lesson on shadows. I usually skip these basics, but now after reading your tutorial find it very useful, and will do the exercises! Thanks again, Prabha

Hey Prabha, nice to hear from you, really pleased the article is helped to show the importance of the basics, especially when trying to model form with drawing.

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Hello Wiil, Your sphere has a very immediate weight and presence, which I am enjoying looking at. It is so good!! I shall give it a try as well. Appreciate your explanation of the light. Thank you! Lynne

Thanks very much Lynne, looking forward to hearing how your sphere turns out.

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Very helpful guidance Will, has broadened my understanding and can’t wait to apply this, cheers, Jan.

Great to hear it Jan, good luck with applying the techniques. Cheers,

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Precious information. Yipppeeee can’t wait for next week. It sounds great thank u so much

Thanks Annelise, really pleased you found it helpful. Cheers,

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A very timely post, and thanks for it! I seem to do fine with shading a sphere or cube that is smooth. But I have been working with textured surfaces… the bumpiness of an orange, the ridges and tears in a red onion, the lumps and brown spots on potatoes… and I find that creating those textures is a real challenge. Any suggestions? Please keep the great tutorials coming!

Hi Kathryn,

So please you found the article to be timely for you, the added complication of textures can appear to take away from the smooth sides of an object, but as long as you think about the underlying form of the subject you will be able to add texture, and more mark-making into your drawings yet still create a compelling realistic effect.

Hope this helps, Cheers, Will

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Thank you so much for sharing this information so clearly making it easy to follow. bye for ow – Althea

You’re welcome Althea, so pleased you found it easy to follow. Cheers,

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This is what we’re doing in my art class right now so it was a tremendous help to me, thanks, and it was perfect timing also!

Perfect timing Renee! you’ll be ahead of the art class! Cheers,

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Thanks wery much, I enjojed to following your lesson.

Thanks Gloria, very kind of you to say so. Cheers,

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Bonjour Will, I’m struggling with two portraits at the minute (they will be birthday presents) but will plod on. I won’t post a link until I’m finished as they look awful right now. I have until August thankfully to finish the first one. Hubby has started with colour now and doing very well – better than me actually. :-)

Thank you for another great lesson. I’ll print it out for my group. Having a try at pen and wash while waiting for the oils to dry. Interesting!! We cannot see the kitchen table anymore – we are squashed up one end to eat. But, it’s fun!

À la prochaine Kryssy

Bonjour Kryssy, sounds like a hive of creative activity! Pleased you’re enjoying the portraits, I’m working on a new colour mixing course for portraits that should be out soon to help give you the edge on Hubby!

Really hope your group is all doing well,

Speak soon, Cheers,

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OMG! This is the exact project we were asked to work on for our next lesson. Will, have you been reading the mail!!!

Thanks a million for all this most useful knowledge you are imparting to the frustrated artist out here wading through the frustrations of completing the picture.

Light, Peace and Laughter,

Hi Mairead, so pleased to hear the article is perfect timing for your project. Really hopes it helps in your drawings success.

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Hi Will, Fantastic exercise, as I am also doing a Colour In Oils class and struggling a little trying to equate a simultaneous contrast between a blue and a yellow, for instance. Even squinting it’s hard to determine how dark the yellow must be to equate with the same tone in blue, which appears relatively quite light in it’s own scale of light to dark. Does that make sense to you? Gaye

Hi Gaye, yes it does make sense to me, seeing the tonal value of colours (especially light colours) is one of the hardest things to do, so I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Making a tonal values strip with the colours can be very helpful in achieving an awareness of the differences in value between different pigments.

Hope this helps, Cheers,

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Hi Will, Thank you so much for a very helpful information. I did not know that the shadow always travel in a straight line and good tip about reflected light.

Hi Tania, really pleased it helped, reflected light can be tricky to balance right.

Hope you’re well, Cheers,

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You make my happy, I would never notice such detailes. Thanks Will Cheers Svetlana

Hi Svetlana, pleasd the article helped you to notice extra details in objects. Cheers, Will

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Thank you very much. It helps!

You’re welcome Deana

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Hi Will, The other Kemp Here! Hope you are keeping well. Thanks for such helpful information…if you remember my lighthouse (I painted) it needed more shadow and tone it was such a challenge for me ! Am still painting and still trying… So Giant Thanks for your help ..it is such an encouragement from an Amazing Talent!! So thx Adrienne. :)

Oh hi Adrienne, lovely to hear from you, I’m doing really well thanks. So pleased you found the article helpful. The lighthouse would be a perfect subject to check some of these principles against, judging the way the shadows and tones appear from the sun light.

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This takes me back to my first lessons…I found this aspect of approaching drawing and painting absolutely invaluable. For me it is still the most important thing to focus on in painting. I remember looking at objects and people’s faces with an entirely different eye… Marvelous, thank you for bring this one up…

Your welcome Katja, you’re right, you really can open your eyes to the different ‘shapes’ hidden within the subjects around you. hope you’re doing well. Cheers,

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Morning Will, Thanks for the easy to follow advice. I am at the end of stage 1 of the Still Life Master Class and so I will try and incorporate this info into the next stage. I’m really enjoying being a student of your great school. All the best, Peter B.

Hi Peter, yes it’s a good principle to look at when you get to painting the oranges, just bear in mind the reflection will behave slightly differently on the cast shadow, as we have the added complication of the reflective mahogany table, but that’s another story! Looking forward to seeing your results.

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I have just taken some of my work to a gallery for constructive criticism and was told to work on my lighting. Your lesson comes at a most opportune time for me. Thanks so much. Looking forward to the next lesson.

Well sounds like perfect timing Terryll, with a few form principles under your belt you can go back to the gallery and get your work hanging on the walls!

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Thank you for this great lesson about understanding light. this is just what I need. I am hoping to order the portrait lessons soon. Will you be giving a lesson on how, what angles to put light on a live model to start portrait practise

Thank you Pauline

Hi Pauline, really pleased you found it helpful. I won’t be covering angles for lighting a live model this series, the great place to start is a classic ‘Rembrandt lighting’, which is 45° out from the model and 45° up from the model. It will help to model the form on the face. The thing to look out for is the illuminated triangle under the eye of the subject on the less illuminated side of the face.

Hope this helps,

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Do you remember the comedian who had a catch phrase with “it’s how I tell em”. after getting a huge applause. Well that says it all about your teachings. Its the way you spell out your advice. You make it so understandable simple. It makes it such a pleasure to get your regular guidance on pretty important subjects. Uncomplicated, totally clear and a knowledge that does not patronize people and is so useful to everyone no matter their skill sets. Many thanks again Will.

Ha ha, hi Charles that really tickled me, as my Dad always say’s “ it’s how I tell em” to his no doubt hilarious tales! So pleased you found the article uncomplicated and clear to follow.

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Can only say: Ditto!

Thanks for ditto Jan! Cheers, Will

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Will: Thanks, again for your tutorial. Even though I’ve heard or seen comments on shadows before, it is good to refresh it again. More important, there are some of your comments that were new to me. Thanks again, Larry

Pleased to hear you got some helpful information out of the article Larry. Cheers,

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Thanks, Will. Great information.

Thanks Sara, pleased you found it helpful.

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Hi Will: I am so glad I found you! As so many others have said, you are an extraordinarily gifted teacher. You manage to communicate with both clarity and humour and you are incredibly generous with all you share. I plan to sign up for one of your courses this Summer – I MUST get a better grasp of colour theory and those books I bought just don’t do it for me!

Meanwhile, I will eagerly absorb these great posts!

Hi Susanna, thanks for your kind words on the teaching, really please you find it easy to understand the concepts.

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Thanks for this very useful information Will its brilliant that yo Take the time to help others thanks

You’re welcome Lesley, I always found the concepts of form the bit technical when I first started so pleased to be able to help out anyone else just starting out.

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Thanks, Will. It was good to review this again.

You’re welcome Sandy. Cheers, Will

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WOW. You are gifted as an artist, instructor and writer. I was a Federal Law Enforcement Agent for many years – and some would say that writing the reports was the most critical part of a serious crime & arrest. Many educated people needed the information to be succinct, accurate, complete to the minutia of evidence and information. Also, and very importantly, grammatically correct. It must also be correct to stand the test of time because there might be many appeals and/or re-trials. In this genre of teaching, your writing is excellent in terms of content, completeness, and skill at putting things on paper in a logical, easy to understand way. Thanks-it’s mostly all new to me, but I’m coming along and all of your tutorials will help me improve. Warm regards, Debbie

Hi Debbie, lovely to hear from you, and thanks for your kind words on the writing, I would say grammatically correct might be stretching it for me though! Really pleased found the article logical and easy to understand. Cheers, Will

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Will; Can you use a grid to place your still life? Thanks for the information.

Sure you can Connie, a grid can be really helpful in aligning your composition. Cheers, Will

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Thanks so much for taking the time to post this lesson. Very helpful information, especially the part about the line separating the light and shadow parts. I’ve had problems with this exact thing.

You’re welcome Bev, great to hear you found it helpful. Cheers, Will

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I have been having trouble getting my shadows looking good, I have trouble with the colors. I am working on an old village scene and it was very flat. So this has helped me a lot.

Hi Irene, pleased the articles helped you to reassess your village scene. Hope it helps to give more form and depth to the picture. Cheers, Will

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Hi Wills, Thanks for another great article, very much appreciated.Cheers Isabel

You’re welcome Isabel, hope you’re keeping well. Will

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Always a good lesson! It bears repeating over & over again for us beginners ! We usually just go for a gray shadow & forget about reflected light !! Thanks as always a good lesson from a great teacher.

Cheers Sherrie, it can be easily forgotten when you’re engrossed in a drawing, pleased you found it helpful. Will

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Hi Will, Very many thanks for yet another amazing article. What a giving soul you are and a natural teacher. To have your skill and ability as an artist and yet still find time to enlighten and encourage those of us who have so much to learn is extremely generous of you. The way you combine light hearted fun with so much knowledge makes you my “go to” teacher and I’m proud to be your pupil. Best wishes, Sheila

Very kind of you to say so Sheila, pleased to have you on board! Cheers, Will

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I wish my previous water colour tutor had gone into this much detail.

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Hello Will, good to hear from you with another great piece of advice. You are keeping me on my toes with such informative lessons. I really must get the pencils and sketch pad out to brush up on my sketching and shading. All the best with your portraits. Shirley

Thanks Shirley, good luck with your sketches! Cheers, Will

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many thanks, i appreciate :)

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Hello Will, What a great lesson. I did not know about those subdivisions of shadows. And also how easily you explained the tricky parts! Everyone will agree that you are a great teacher besides being a great artist. You explained it simply. You have a nice penmanship too. As a reader it never seemed too informative or boring.

I have few questions – Like you said – the knowledge of lights on a sphere can be used on a similar thing like a cheek. A cheek may have reflected lights? Last time a painted a portrait…the cheeks and the forehead turned out to be pretty flat…

Also you said sketching everyday keep our inspiration flowing… I wanted to do that once- sketch everyday. But I got confused what to to sketch! There were lots of subjects individually around me but they were not interesting. Or maybe they were not interesting at that light or at that eye level…I dont know but I hardly found anything to sketch daily. So how you find what to sketch everyday?

Thanks again. Waiting eagerly for the next lesson.

Hi Swapniel, really pleased you found the article interesting on the subdivisions of shadows, it is definetly something to look out for in your drawings and paintings. A Cheek can have reflected light, look for in the dark shadow side of the face if you’re using a single light source. Not all cheeks of are rounded though, it varies from sitter to sitter. I wouldn’t try to overcomplicate the process, you could be drawing your shoe, the cup of coffee, the view out of the window. You might find Micheal Nobbs site – Sustainably creative of interest. He runs a course on drawing our lives and getting into the daily habit of drawing.

Hope it helps, Will

p.s Your jug still life has come out really well! good one.

Hello Will, Thank you for the suggestions. I have started with simple things on my desk. I have windows on three sides of my room plus the wall lights.. so objects are creating very complicated shadows… And I will checkout the website too. I was practicing the tonal strip that you posted. I could get the darkest value with charcoal only. But couldn’t get the lightest value… (the 2nd from the left, 2nd row) By the way, what is tonal contrast? And thank you very much for the great compliment on the jug painting. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you.

Hi Swapniel,

Tonal contrast is the contrast between two tones. Black and white have the highest tonal contrast – a grey and a light grey would have a lower tonal contrast.

I see. :) Thank you.

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Thanks Chuck,

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You are a clever sausage Will. I think you are like me…. you eat, sleep and breathe art You always talk such sense and add exciting new dimensions to art.

Thanks Janette, very kind of you to say so, really pleased it all made sense. Cheers,

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Hi Will, This is very good explanations regarding light sources, shadow and reflection. Your explanation is superb, so simple and so clear. I really enjoy a lot and am looking forward to the second and the third parts. I appreciate very much your generosity, it helps me a lot to understand and looking forward to applying it in my painting. Nualnapa

Hi Nualnapa, Thanks very much for your kind comments, and looking forward to part two! Cheers, Will

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Wow, you are so talented. Not only is your art great but you teach so well. Very easy to follow – thank you. I picked up a pencil for the first time last year so lessons like this are fantastic! I appreciate the time and effort that goes into your guides.

Kind of you to say so Marg, pleased you found the article easy to follow. Cheers, Will

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Good morning Will, I had a picture framing workshop and art gallery for over 30 years and thought I new most of what there was to know about the business,however,you’ve certainly proved me wrong.Keep up the good work. All the best John

Hi John, nice to hear from you and pleased you found the article of interest. Cheers, Will

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Hello Will, Thanks for sending Part 1 of 3. It was enjoyable to read – made me reach around to get my sketch pad immediately. Looking forward to receiving Parts 2 and 3, and applying your suggestions.

Happy art tmes, Richard Heinkel

Great to hear it Richard,(and enjoy the Colour mixing Course!)

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Thanks Will

the inspiration to paint again is thanks to you. I love your style!

Keep up your fine work

Cheers Nicky, Part 2 coming soon!

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Thank you Will for your recent post you are so inspiring, being a good artist you are a good instructor as well. Bless you

Thanks very much Bruno, it’s very kind of you to say so!

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Thank You very much,Will! Always interesting and useful!! Sincerely,Nadya

Thanks Nadya, pleased you found it interesting. Will

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It was very important information. I appreciate it

Pleased you found it helpful in your drawings Haylen, Cheers, Will

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Thanks Will for another clear and easy -to- follow tutorial….. I very much look forward to the next instalment :) Thanks for taking the time from your busy schedule to post this, its much appreciated! Cheers!

You’re welcome Carol, hope you’re keeping well, just finished the drawing for Part 2, it’s looking a peach! (well an apple shaped peach) should be live soon. Cheers, Will

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You are a great teacher, now for the first time I understand. My first oil was a pear with light from one side. It look like nothing. With this lesson the pear looks great to eat. Thanks Will.

Thanks Uli, brilliant to hear you now understand the basics of light and shade and your pear painting has improved, great stuff. Cheers, Will

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Guide to Light and Shadow: Where is part 2?

Great Beginning.

Hi Sa, should be live tomorrow! Cheers, Will

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Thanks WIll. A very helpful. Can’t wait to get started putting your excellent lesson into action. Thank you, Pamela.

You’re welcome Pamela, Cheers, Will

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Amazingly understandable lesson. You have genius in your instructing methods. Thank you for all the help. Patsy

Thanks Patsy

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this is great info! I’ve been struggling with this for quite a while.

Good one John, pleased it helped. Will

One thing I’m curious about is slant line that seems to divide the light and dark. I’ve seen other teacher wanting to use a smooth variegated tone to show depth, or roundness. Are they teaching a more advance technique?

Hi John, yes that’s right, from the article above:

Keeping your light tones in the light side and your darks in the shadows whilst maintaining a soft transition between the two is what we’re trying to achieve.

A smooth transition between the form shadow and the light side.

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I really enjoy how well-written your instructions are and how well the visuals illustrate the principle. Thank you!

Thanks Elisa, really pleased you enjoyed the article. Cheers, Will

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Thank you for great lesson,looking forward to the next one Pat.

Cheers Pat Will

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Will, u rock!!

Thanks Naz! Will

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Cool!Thank you so much.Its really helpful.

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Thank you, I am working on this before I get to Part 2. :-)

Good one Dinah,

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Your instructions for this lesson are very helpful. It has really helped in observing objects that are casting different shadows and also in different lighting.

Pleased to hear it Joe, glad it’s helped you to start to observe objects with an artist eye. Cheers, Will

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Thank you so much for your guidance Will. I’m having so much difficulty applying this logic on a canvas while painting. I need strict tutorial. I still find it hard to believe that there’s someone like you who teaches anyone who’s willing to learn. We’re lucky to have you. Good luck.

Thanks for your kind words, hope you’re finding the lessons helpful. Cheers, Will

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Light bulb moments keep happening when I read your lessons. Thank you very much I will try to put your information into practice. Drawing this morning so I will have the opportunity today. Lynette

Great to hear it Lynette, good luck with your drawings. Cheers, Will

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Thank you for distilling for us what could be a confusing subject, Will. I like the crisp way you presented the subject. I watched Part 2 as well. This augments what we’re doing now at my first drawing class. Practice cannot be emphasized enough… Over the years at my work I came up with this: “Work on it, but not too hard otherwise it becomes a chore.” -Eduardo

Hi Eduardo, so pleased you found the information on light & shade clear and easy to follow. Cheers, Will

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Thank you for giving me the endurance and the will to keep going.

You’re welcome Steven, really pleased it helped. Will

Your instruction helps me a lot to understand the light and shade and to pay more attention when I paint. Thanks a lot!

Nualnapa B. Brown

Great to hear it Nualnapa! Cheers, Will

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Wow great information.I wish I had this when Imstarted to teach myself to draw! I retired in 2010 took a drawing class at senior center . I had always doodled but didn’t think I could draw. I have since taken up oil painting. Thank you so much for your lessons. I will reread thismto absorb all the great information! Thank you!

Thanks Glenda, just following some of the basic principles with light can really make a massive influence on your drawings, really hope it helps you work. Cheers, Will

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Hellooooooooo Will, Thank you for your timely information on lighting and shadows, very much appreciated. Have a great Easter, With Greetings from Mumbai

Thanks Bruno, really hope you enjoy this series. Cheers, Will

Do you add purple to all shadows? Thank you for this information. Happy Easter Connie

Hi Connie, no, you don’t add purple to all shadows, it depends on the colour of the objects and the reflected light into the shadows. Will

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Thanks Will..this was very informative..your step by step analysis is great..it helped me in understanding how light behaves on an object..looking forward to applying these techniques in my paintings…it definitely makes a difference.

So pleased it’s helped Prema, Cheers, Will

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Thank you, Will.

Thanks Ingrid

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Will, Please keep your tutorials coming. I happily signed up on your website, I think you are one of the most gifted art teachers I have ever seen. Somehow, when I follow your instructions, my work comes out so much better than with other teachers. I don’t know how you do it, but simply put, you are great! Thank you so much.

Thanks for your kind comments on my teaching style, so pleased you’ve found the lessons easy to follow and you’re creating some great paintings!

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just spotted the article titled “The curious tale of the economist and the Cezanne in the hedge” with now very familiar image (although a bit different apples here) and felt a need to share: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27226104

Warm regards, Nataliya

Hi Nataliya, thanks for the link to the article, very timely! Cheers, Will

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Thanks a lot for your lessons ,and I do a appreciate them there’s something I didn’t get into it even I reread it :why the Form Shadow Core is darker than the Form Shadow but logically it must be the same at least ?

Hi Maha, it is is due to the reflected light in the scene, if you had a black box and the apple was within it the Form shadow core and Form shadow would both be the same.

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Thank you so much. You’re GREAT!!!

Thanks Tamara, Will

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Wow! I’m so glad I found your website. I’ve decided to do a large painting of hydrangeas and was looking for color advice when I found your “pinks” post. Wonderful! I’ve spent a lot of time and money on classes and workshops and not learned as much as I have on your videos. Thank you so much!

Hey Martha,

Nice to hear from you and so pleased you’re enjoying the website. Pleased the colour mixing post helped.

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This is a very helpful tutorial on shadows, I hope to see more as we go on, nice one Will.

Thanks Zak, Cheers, Will

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Wonderful tutorial, was searching for some theory on light and shadow. I loved this – “It is the dark side on an object not facing the light that reveals the form and mass of the shape”. Some really good fundamentals covered

Thanks Rupa, pleased you found it helpful. Cheers, Will

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Simple and very useful. Greatings from Brazil. Thank you.

Thanks Alex, pleased you found it helpful. Cheers, Will

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Hi will, I’m Akpabio Martins an undergraduate in the prestigious university of Uyo, Nigeria. I have found your lessons use full and will like to get more of this lessons via my email address. Thanks! Keep up the good work… greetings from Nigeria{Africa}

Pleased you’ve been finding them helpful Akpabio. Cheers, Will

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I don’t draw or sketch but I am attracted to art that uses shadow correctly. I enjoyed reading your explanation of how this is achieved.

I have used the periscope app one time in my life. There was a person drawing and we the observers were as present as if we had been in the room. I mention this because should you ever decide to hold a class where you taught about light and shadow I would like to be in attendance. Just a thought.

Thanks Richard, pleased you enjoyed the article and good to know the periscope app worked well for the lesson. Cheers, Will

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Hi I am from Turkey. I am beginner now and I want to all learn details about drawing. thank you.

Pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons Merve. Cheers, Will

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Hi Will, Thank you so much for creating these wonderful tutorials. Your explanations are clear and easy to understand. And as a new painter it is wonderful to be able to learn online from a talented artist like yourself. I wish you great success and thank you sincerely for sharing your knowledge. Cheers Jane in Ottawa, Canada

Thanks very much Jane, that’s very kind of you to say so, really hope you find the site helpful. Will

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Many thanks Will. all perfect and helpful

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Thanks a lot. Hope I’ll learn more from you.

Glad you enjoyed it Revathy Will

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I think I may be a bit late on this whole comment thing, but thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with those who need it! I really appreciate these guides, they help me on my journey through art. My teacher is sending my class to your guides for isolation homeschooling, and I find that it really helps me understand the wonderful world of realism artmaking. Thank you!

Never too late for a comment! thanks for your kind words and thanks to your teacher for the recommendation. Really hope your apple painting turns out well. Cheers, Will

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should i start with coloured pencils or graphite?

I’d start with graphite first.

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Hi, this page is very informative. I would like to ask, if I can use this as a discussion for my visual arts students. Thank you. God bless

Glad it was helpful Raquel, for sure, hope they find it useful. Will

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Hey Reymark, pleased you’ve been enjoying the articles. If you have the light 45 degrees from the model and 45 degrees height you will create a ‘Rembrandt lighting’ which will give you a strong modelling.

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drawing exercises light shadow

How to See Light and Shadow with a Simple Drawing Exercise

By Adriana Guidi in Art Tutorials   >   Drawing Tips

Years ago when I was studying with my artist friend and teacher Richard Morris, he showed me an easy way of seeing light and shadow using his book of glamour photos from the 1940’s.

The book, Movie-Star Portraits of the Forties , edited by John Kobal, has 163 strikingly beautiful black and white photos of many classic movie stars ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Humphrey Bogart among others.

If you want to try this drawing exercise for yourself, you’ll need a similar type of book (or just some high-contrast black and white photos) some tracing paper , and your drawing pencils or charcoal .

Start by opening up your book and looking for a photograph with plenty of light and shadow, like the photo of Gary Cooper below. Once you’ve found it, lay a piece of tracing paper over your photo.

Black and white Gary Cooper photo for drawing exercise

Use a pencil or charcoal to trace the outline of the head, then look carefully and trace around all the different areas of shadow that you see within the face as well—even the very light ones.

Once you have an outline drawn, fill in the shadows with the side of your pencil or charcoal. Lightly fill in the mid tone shades, go heavier wherever you see the darkest shadows coming through the paper and leave the paper white for the lightest lights.

Gary Cooper drawing with tracing paper

Keep it simple, with not too much detail. The goal is to train your eyes to see the different values visible in a portrait. This will help you when you’re actually drawing your piece, and it also makes for a great light and shadow lesson for drawing students of any age.

You can transition from tracing to  drawing from life just by turning off the overhead lights, and setting up one strong light source on a model or any other three-dimensional object.

I find that after I’ve done a few practice runs with the tracing paper and I’m working on the actual portrait, it makes it much easier to see the lines, tones and various value shapes of the head—no matter whether you’re drawing from a photograph, or from a subject right in front of you.

Charcoal drawing of movie star


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Draw several of the basic forms with their cast shadows falling on a variety of textured surfaces.

Draw several objects with their cast shadows as they would appear first in direct light, and then in diffused light.

Next, go back to your drawings and indicate proximity shadows wherever you can see the contact points between the objects and their cast shadows.

drawing exercises light shadow

Draw objects with cast shadows that describe the environment and the object's relationship to it.

drawing exercises light shadow

Draw an object in direct light with a cast shadow and in diffused light with a cast shadow.

drawing exercises light shadow

Draw an object with its proximity shadow. One end of this object has a proximity shadow; the other doesn't.

drawing exercises light shadow

Draw an object in the cast shadow of another object. An object in cast shadow looks the same as it would if seen in diffused light, only darker.

drawing exercises light shadow

Draw objects whose cast shadows describe the texture of their environment.

drawing exercises light shadow

What's wrong with this picture? How do we get cast shadows to cross? How many light sources do we have? Why do we have only one cast shadow per light source?

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drawing exercises light shadow

Drawing Shadows and Light: The Basics

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Beginner Drawing Tutorial on Shadows and Light Shapes

An object is almost never in simply light and shade. Rather, it is usually in an environment in which light is bouncing around in several directions. For this reason, it is important for beginners to understand the nature of shadows and light.

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

Forms of Shadow and Light

Artists refer to six basic concepts when describing the behavior of light on a form, listed here in order of brightness: highlight , direct light , reflected light , shadow , core shadow  and cast shadow .

Shadows and light diagram

Highlight refers to the bright reflection that occurs where the light directly hits the form. If the surface is irregular, the highlight may be at the crest of the surface in direct light.

If the surface has a protuberance somewhere else in direct light, the highlight may be on the protuberance in the area closest to the light source.

Highlights are usually small and intense spots of near-white. The highlight is NEVER at a 90-degree angle to the light source, but rather between that angle and where the artist’s line of vision hits the object.

This is important to understand because assuming that a highlight simply indicates the direction of a light source will result in a misleading rendering of the shadows.

Direct light refers to any area on the form that directly receives light from the light source. Contrast this with reflected light.

Reflected light , or bounced light, is light on the dark side of the form that has been reflected onto the form by adjacent surfaces. For example, the shadow side of a sphere is slightly illuminated by light bouncing off the floor and onto this side of the object. The color of the object is often most true in this area because direct light can wash out local color.

Without reflected light, all the viewer would see is the lit side, resulting in an unconvincing image. Reflected light rounds the form. It is never darker than a cast shadow or lighter than the shadow area that appears on the periphery of the area in direct light.

The Shadows

The shadow area is all area not in direct light. Part of the shadow area is illuminated by reflected light. Another part of the shadow area is the core shadow.

Core shadow , or terminator, is the darkest dark on the form, and it appears as a line or plane parallel to the light source, benefiting from neither direct light nor reflected light.

shadows and light diagram two

Cast shadow is the shadowed area on adjacent surfaces where the direct light is blocked by the form. It is darker than the core shadow. Its edges are clearly delineated where it is closest to the form, and softer as it stretches away from the form. The shadow is darkest where it is closest to the form.

Lighting Complications

Of course, if there is more than one light source, all of the above is modified significantly because shadows and light will interfere with each other! And remember, if the artist is confused about the light and shadow, the viewer will assuredly be as well.

Also, keep in mind that a light sky will act as a secondary, subtle source of light in addition to the sun (or moon). The sky, which is reflected light from the sun, reflects light in turn upon any object beneath it. When a shadow area outside seems bluish, it is because the area is getting its primary light from the blue sky.

Article contributions by Bob Bahr. 

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Drawing Light and Shadows

Figure drawing for dummies.

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Sign up for the Dummies Beta Program to try Dummies' newest way to learn.

Values are the different shades of gray between white and black. Artists use values to translate the light and shadows they see into shading, thus creating the illusion of a third dimension.

Hatching and crosshatching are simple and fun techniques for drawing shading.

A full range of values is the basic ingredient for shading. When you can draw lots of different values, you can begin to add shading, and therefore depth, to your drawings.

With shading, the magical illusion of three-dimensional reality appears on your drawing paper. Figure 1 demonstrates hot to take a simple line drawing of a circle and add shading to transform it into the planet Earth.

drawing exercises light shadow

You know the objects around you are three-dimensional because you can walk up to them, see them from all sides, and touch them. Take a moment to look around you at familiar objects. Try to discover why you see their actual three-dimensional forms. Look for the different values created by the light and shadows.

Taking a closer look at light and shadow

The light source tells you where to draw all the light values and shadows.

Figure 2 gives you some practice in locating the light source, shadows, and cast shadows around an object, which in this case is a sculpture. As you look at two drawings of the sculpture, ask yourself the following questions:

drawing exercises light shadow

The two drawings in Figure 2 have different light sources. Compare them and find the dominant light source in each.

If you guessed that the light is coming from the right in the first drawing, you would be correct. In the second drawing, the light originates from the left.

Seeing how a light source affects an actual object is more challenging than examining a drawing. Place an object on a table in a dimly lit room. Shine a powerful flashlight or a lamp (a light source) on the object. Observe it from different perspectives.

Exploring contrast in a drawing

When a drawing has mostly light and middle values, it is called low contrast. Some drawing subjects need to be soft and gentle. You can create a very soft drawing and still use a full range of values. Think about a white kitten, for example. Most of the shading is very light, but the drawing becomes more powerful if you use a little dark shading in a few selective areas, such as the pupils of the eyes and the shadows.

Your drawings can appear flat rather than three-dimensional when you use too little contrast in values. Unless you are trying to achieve a specific mood or want the subject to look flat, always use a full range of values.

The bright light on the front of her face presents a strong contrast to the dark shadow on the side of his face. This makes for a powerful visual separation even though the two faces seem close together.

drawing exercises light shadow

Translating values you see into values you draw

If you look closely at a mound of dark earth, you notice that it has several different values. If a fresh layer of snow covered this mound of earth, there would still be lots of values. When you can see a range of different values you can draw your subject in the third dimension.

Squinting to see values and simple shapes

Look at Figure 4 and squint your eyes until the image seems to go out of focus. Compare the darkest values to the lightest, and try to see the abstract shapes created by the different values.

The second drawing shows what you may see when you squint. Take note of the shapes created by the values.

drawing exercises light shadow

Turning colors into values with squinting

Wouldn't it be nice if you could simply press a button in the middle of your forehead and magically transform the world from full color to gray values? This ability would certainly make drawing a lot easier. Thankfully, simply squinting your eyes can help you develop this skill.

Try these suggestions to help you train your mind to translate colors into values:

About This Article

This article can be found in the category:.

Drawing Light and Shadow

Drawing Light and Shadow

Learn how to draw different objects realistically

As an artist, one of the most important skills you can learn is how to use light and shadow in your drawings. This not only makes your artwork more realistic, but also gives it more depth and three-dimensionality. In this article, we’ll first go over the basics of light and shadow, what to look for when drawing, and then apply your newly learned skills in an exercise. So grab your pencils and paper, because we’re getting started!

The Basics of Light and Shadow

Remember that light always travels in a straight line and shadow can never exist without a light source, no matter how weak it may be. When it comes to light and shadow, the following five factors are most important to consider.

The Direction of the Light

The first thing you need to consider when drawing light and shadow is the direction of the light. It determines how long or short the shadows are, and where they are on the object.

If the light is coming from the side, the shadows are long and fall next to the object. If the light is coming from above, the shadows are short and fall below the object.

The Intensity of the Light

The intensity of the light also affects the shadows. A strong light source creates sharp, dark shadows, while a weak light source creates soft, light shadows.

The Shape of the Object

As you can probably guess, the shape of the object also plays a role in how light and shadow are cast. A sphere casts a round shadow in the shape of an ellipse, while a cube casts a rectangular shadow in the shape of a trapezoid.

The Surface Characteristics of the Object

Another factor that affects shadows is the surface characteristics of the object. If the object has bumps or elevations, the shadows will be broken up and fall in different directions.

The Orientation of the Object

The last factor to consider is the orientation of the object. It determines how much light it reflects and where the highlights fall. If the object is very close to the light, it will reflect more light and have brighter highlights. If it is farther away from the light, it reflects less light and has darker shadows.

Exercise: Drawing Objects with Light and Shadow

For this exercise you will need:

Place your object in front of you so that you can easily draw on it. With both daylight and artificial light, make sure that the object casts a shadow that can be clearly seen. The protagonist for my exercise drawing is a simple ping pong ball and I use my cell phone tripod with lighting as the light source.

Drawing a Sketch of the Object

For our sketch, let’s just go through our five factors. Me for mine, you for yours.

Drawing Light and Shadow on the Object

For this step, I recommend working with many different hardnesses of pencils , as this allows for particularly fine transitions. I use a spectrum from 4H to 2B.

When drawing the shadows on our object, there are still a few things to keep in mind. One might think that the side that is not facing the light can be completely covered with a shadow. However, the background also reflects light, so the bottom edge of our object should be drawn a little lighter again.

More Tips for Drawing realistic Light and Shadow

To be able to draw light and shadow with confidence, I recommend that you practice this regularly. First use simple shapes like a sphere, a dice, a cylinder or similar, as in our example exercise. Later you can use more complex shapes like a human head to practice.

It’s also helpful to set up your own small still life to try out different light sources and shadows. It’s best to use objects with smooth surfaces, as these create clear shadows.

Have fun practicing and I’m sure you’ll see progress soon!

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Art Instruction For Beginners - Online Art Lessons

Drawing Lesson – A Theory of Light and Shade

August 4, 2009 by Ralph S 50 Comments

A Theory of Light and Shade ©Sheri Lynn Boyer Doty

All Illustrations for a theory of light and shade are by Sheri Doty accept for Manet’s painting “The Railway” showing an undefined light source. Before you undertake your practice of the use of light and shade in your art you need to understand the significance that light and dark contrast has in making a painting or drawing visually believable.

Value is the term used to describe light, gray and dark tones.

Johannes Itten wrote “the contrast between light and dark is one of the most expressive and important means of composition.” Value contrast can be encountered in both colorful and non-colorful art renderings.” All neutral tones from white, black and all the gray tones between are called achromatic, meaning having no color. All tones that have some color are call chromatic. When investigating art in all its components, you must consider the relationship of value to other art elements, color, line texture and shape. All these elements must exhibit some value contrast in order to remain visible.

A simple Value Scale shows figure-ground relationship s

Drawing Lesson Image 1

Figure-Ground is the condition in which backgrounds tone or hue changes the visual impact of the figure resting on it. The same hue or value appears to be a different depending upon the contrast of tone or hue of the background upon which it is placed. Conversely, two different tones or hues appear to be the same when placed on contrasting grounds. Each will have an impact on how believable your art will be perceived by the viewer. Most people have difficulty perceiving “figure-ground” relationships. When the same medium toned figure is placed on varied light and dark backgrounds, it will be perceived to be as a different value.Example: When a medium gray is placed on a near black background, the mid-gray tone appears very light. When the same gray tone is placed on a near white background, it is perceived to be very dark. But when a mid gray tone is placed on a similar value background, the contrast is minimal. Note how the same mid-tone value patch looks different when placed on backgrounds of contrasting values.


Value describes volume and depth of space In Europe artists of the Renaissance were concerned with showing depth and volume in opposition to the artists of the Middle or “Dark Ages.” Men of the Renaissance considered their time period to be the Age of Reason and rebirth of artistic and mathematical achievements. Renaissance artists manufactured the term “Chiaroscuro” to describe how light and dark can imply depth and volume. The word Chiaroscuro is a combination of two Italian words that mean light and dark. (chiaro (clear, light) + oscuro (obscure, dark) Atmospheric or Ariel perspective was one of the artistic strategies used in the study of Chiaroscuro during the Renaissance. (Atmospheric or Ariel perspective is covered in depth in the section “Objective Color Harmony”.)

Chiaroscuro and the Illusion of creating intuitive space.

drawing light and shadow

One of the most used and useful applications of value is creating the illusion of volume and mass on a two dimensional surface. When a mass is exposed to light, a solid object will receive more light from one side than another when that side is closer to the light source. A spherical surface demonstrates this as an even flow tone from light to dark. A cast shadow is created when the source of light is obstructed by the sphere. An angular surface shows sudden contrast of light and dark.

Intuitive Space is merely a trick the artist uses to create depth on a two dimensional surface.

“Intuitive space” is merely the illusion space created by using artistic methods to trick the viewer into seeing depth, volume and mass on a two dimensional surface. Intuitive space is sensed or ”felt” on a two dimensional plane. Intuitive methods of space control include overlapping, transparency, and other applications of spatial proportion. In a “Theory of Light and Shade” I will show how to create intuitive space by using “Light Logic”.

Light Logic refers to how light interacts with objects. Light Logic is the term Betty Edwards uses in her book “The NewDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain”

Light Logic and the Rendering of Three Dimensional Objects onto a Two Dimensional Surface.

You will make your art more believable when you keep these basics in mind.

A Light Source and Shadows

A light projected onto an object or figure creates lights, darks, and cast shadows. Your source of light may be the sun, the moon, a light through a window or an artificial light. When several light sources are present the light and dark tones vary and are less predictable. To simplify the study of light and shadow in this first section, I will use only one light source.

Two Kinds of Shadows

There are two kinds of shadows that occur when one light shines on an object, a cast shadow and a form shadow.

Drawing Lesson Image 3

Cast Shadow

When an object blocks a light source it casts a shadow. A cast shadow is not a solid shape but varies in tone and value. The farther a cast shadow is from the object which casts it the lighter and softer and less defined becomes its edges.

Form Shadow

A form shadow is the less defined dark side on an object not facing the light source. A form shadow has softer less defined edges than a cast shadow. Form shadows are subtle shadows essential for creating the illusion of volume, mass and depth. The changes in form shadows require careful observation – quinting at the subject to see value definition affected by figure-ground making value relationships clearer.

A Light Side and a Dark Side on Round or Circular Surfaces

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When one light source is present, I was taught the dark side is “always”darker than the light side of the object and the light side is “always” lighter than the dark side. Establishing a definite light side and dark side makes round objects appear round and defines the form of an object accurately. Use this simple trick to make your artwork more true to life, separate light tones avoiding figure-ground confusion.


drawing theory for beginners

The lightest spot or streak is where the light strikes the subject in exactly the middle of the light side between the shadow edge and the edge of the object. A highlight can be shinny and crisp on a glass or metallic surface, or fuzzy and muted on a dull or textured surface.

Light middle tones

Note, to avoid confusion, “always” keep the values on the light side lighter than the values on the dark side. In reverse, the values on the dark side are darker than the values on the light side. It’s the middle tones on either side that confuse the artist’s eye in value relationships

The Dark Side in Three Parts

Form shadow in three parts, “shadow edge” or “core shadow”.

The edge where the light is blocked from the light source is the darkest value on the dark side. The core or darkest value blends into the middle tones from the shadow edge on round subjects.

Dark middle tone

The variable values blended form the shadow edge on the dark side. Again, the dark middle tones are darker than any values on the light side. The human eye can trick the brain into believing the lightest values on the dark side are the same as the darkest values on the light side. If the artist is confused about lights and darks, the rendering is less understandable.

Reflected light

If the object being painted is sitting on a white table, the light from the table reflects back onto the object and makes the shadow side lighter. If the object of the painting is resting by something black or dark, the middle values will become a dark reflection. The concept also holds true when the object of the painting is sitting on a colored surface. If the reflected light is reobject.

Cast Shadows

drawing exercises light shadow

When the source of light is blocked by an object it casts a shadow. The length and shape of the cast shadow depends on the placement of the light source. Long shadows are cast from a side light source (as from the sun in late afternoon or early evening), and short cast shadows are cast from over head (as from a noonday sun). The shape a shadow casts depends on the shape of the object casting it and how close source is to the object.


The vocabulary used to describe cast shadows in art come from shadow descriptions in astronomy. The umbra, penumbra and antumbra are the three distinct names given to the description of shadows cast by heavenly bodies. The umbra is the darkest part of a shadow considered the absence of light. The penumbra is a lighter outer shadow where the object is only partially obscuring the light. The antumbra is more obscure. When it is visible it seems to extend out from the penumbra in a lighter and less distinct way.

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Light Source, Cast Shadows and the Axis

drawing exercises light shadow

Cast Shadows The Sphere

drawing exercises light shadow

The Cylinder and Cone

drawing exercises light shadow

More on Cast Shadows

Drawing Lesson Image 12

Too many complex cast shadows can be confusing. Such objects can be rendered by blurring the edges.

Daylight and Cast Shadows

drawing techniques shading

Cast shadows of irregular shapes and in natural sun light are open for interpretation because of the constant changing sunlight: As you work on location, the sun will continue to advance and change what you are drawing. Note the place you would have the sun be positioned, and keep that constant to avoid a confusing spread of shadows. The nature of shadow is affected by weather, sunlight, moonlight, or artificial light.

Multiple Light Sources or an Undefined Light source

Multiple light sources or an undefined light source minimizes the gradation of values and flattens the sense of volume in three dimensional objects. Because of this lighting affect, artists such as Manet painted colors in flat areas neglecting the use of one light source to create shadows. An undefined light source causes a sense of shallow space. Some art critics believe this sense of shallow space to have paved the way for “nonrepresentational” uses of value and color.

drawing exercises light shadow

Manet’s Painting, “The Railway” shows value contrast in composition, but the sense of shallow space is emphasized by a lack of a single light source.

drawing exercises light shadow

Objects Have Light, Medium or Dark Values

Objects have an allover light, medium or dark quality. To make your representation more believable, you should take into consideration the light or dark value of each object. Before you render details, block in the value characteristics of each object. Using this strategy will save you time and achieve a more realistic result.

Drawing Tips Image 16

Value Schemes and Mood

You create a sense of mood or interest depending on the combination of values present in a work of art. When value contrast is limited to a small range of tonal variations the result is one of understatement and calm. “High Key” is the term used for a light value scheme. All middle tone values are in a “Medium Key” range.

And “Low Key” refers to an allover dark toned value scheme. Sharp value contrast evokes strong emotions in the viewer suggesting drama or conflict. Extreme value contrast in a value scheme refers to a style of chiaroscuro called “Tenebrism”.

Drawing Instructions Image 17

Tenebrism – Violent Chiaroscuro

In the 17th century, a group of painters instituted the so called “dark manner” of painting. They were inspired by Michelangelo di Caravaggio. Rembrandt perfected this manner of Chiaroscuro. Tenebrism made value an instrument of strong contrast that lends itself to a dramatic and even theatrical style of using light and dark contrast. The tenebrists were interested in peculiar lighting causing mood or emotional expressionism. The deviation from standard light conditions into unexpected lighting locations creates unusual and special effects. This style is used today by photographers.

The analytical study of Chiaroscuro in the art of today

Using chiaroscuro to create excitement and interest in composition is a modern concept. Artists of the Renaissance were concerned with showing depth and volume on a two dimensional surface. The expression of light and contrast in old and new masterpieces reveal the continued importance of Chiaroscuro in art.

Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light. The principle of Notan is the interaction between positive (light) and negative (dark) space. This interaction is confirmed by the ancient Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang. This is represented by mirror images of one black and one white shape revolving around a center point. The positive and negative areas make a whole through a unity of opposites that are equal and inseparable. In Notan, opposites complement and do not conflict.


“An understanding of Notan traditionally has been and will be a requirement for mastery of any field of art. It enables the artist to compose a work in which all the parts relate to create a unity of visual organization, impression, or pattern. Notan enables the artist to achieve a Gestalt – or more simply to create a design.”Notan The Dark-Light Principles of Design by Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield

Lao-Tse wrote a poem that to me simply states the Essence of Notan:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel.

Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot.

Walls with windows and doors form the house, but the empty space within it is the essences of the house.

The Principle: Matter represents the usefulness Non-matter the essence of things.

Poem taken from Johannes Itten’s book Design and Form, Revised Edition Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later, John Westly & Sons, INC, page 13

Drawing Tips Image 19

Value as Pattern

Controlled shallow space is illustrated by the early cubists such as Picasso and Braques. Their paintings are taken from realistic subject matter and abstracted into unified flat tonal planes. The planes are shaded individually with the semi-illusion of space with no light source. Later, each plane takes on characteristic value combined with other planes with the same style of value pattern. This produces a carefully conceived two dimensional pattern of light and dark values. The shallow space develops a three dimensional effect through the characteristics of the advancing and receding values.

Decorative Effects of Light and Dark Contrast

Artists using the decorative effects of light and dark contrast ignore the use of the conventional tools of light logic all together. When light effects appear, it is often based on the total design of the artwork.

drawing exercises light shadow

Compositional Functions of Value

Today most artists use value as a vital tool in pictorial composition. Value contrast is an intrinsic factor in pictorial organization, in showing dominance in design, creating two dimensional patterns, establishing mood and producing spatial unity. The effectiveness of a work of art or design is in large measure based on the use of value.

Resource Material : Ideas for this section came from my own experience, education and observations; “Basic Perspective for Artists” by Keith West; “Perspective Without Pain” by Phil Metzger, North Light Books 1988; The Basics of Drawing by Parramon Ediciones Editorial Team’ Barron’s Educational Series 1994; The Practice and Science of Drawing, by Harold Speed, Dover, first published in 1917 by Seeley, in London, reprinted by Dover,1972; Art Fundamentals Theory and Practice – Second Edition WM.C. Brown Company, Publishers/Dubuque, Iowa 1968 by Ocvirk, Bone, Ssinson and Wigg; Design Basics Fifth Edition, by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak, Wadsworth-Thompson Learning

Sheri Lynn Boyer Doty CPSA -Biography 

drawing exercises light shadow

Sheri Doty received a B F A degree in 1972 from the University of Utah with a painting and drawing emphasis. Having experimented with non-representational styles during her student years, Sheri preferred classic realism as thought by professor Alvin Gittons.  He and the professors, under whom she studied, emphasized strong drawing and painting skills. Sheri is a faculty member of Salt Lake Community College and Peterson’s Art center where she teaches Fine Art and Design.

Sheri’s paintings have  earned her awards in regional, national and international art exhibitions and invitational shows including purchase awards and permanent museum acquisitions.  Sanford Corporation has used her artwork to showcase its PRISMACOLOR colored pencil product line internationally.  Sheri is a charter member and signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America [C.P.S.A.].

Sheri’s artwork has been published in numerous books including The Encyclopedia of Colored Pencil Techniques by Quarto Publishing, London England;Most of The Best of Colored Pencil series by Rockport Publishers, Creative Colored Pencil Techniques by Rockport  Publishers, Creative Colored Pencil Portraits byri’s art work is included is  Rockport Publishers and The Best of Portrait Painting by North Light Books, Dear Sisters by Covenant Communications Inc. Sheri’s artwork is published on book covers, in newspapers, periodicals, and exhibit catalogues.

People have been known to say, “She possesses a unique ability to paint the breath of life into her subjects – a gifted talent.” Because Sheri expresses not only the likeness of her clients but also their lifestyle, her portraits are in high demand. Sheri has also has prints and greeting cards on the market.

Sheri Says:

“The art professors under whom I studied had us draw and paint from live models and “open air” studies, not from photographs.  To truly see and paint a subject, I need to see it from all angles.  The human eye sees so much more than what is pictured in a photograph.  I am glad of the rich ridged training I received from my teachers.  I have married the use of photography and live studies to create my paintings.  I take my own photographs as resource material employing a variety of ways to recreate what the human eye sees.  My paintings are not exact reproductions, but an interpretation of life from my view as an artist.

“Thirty years of study and experience in this field has taught me that talent isn’t the reason for success in any endeavor.  The keys to success are desire, perseverance and determination.  But most of all,  I depend on Father in Heaven’s influence.   When I pray about what I paint, I can feel His help and guidance.”


Follow this link to visit Sheri’s website to view more of her work and to learn more about her.

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August 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm

This is a great, comprehensive article! Once you understand how light works and how to shade basic shapes, drawing more complicated subjects becomes much easier. Thanks for this info! .-= Miranda´s last blog .. How to Draw the Nose – Tutorial =-.

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August 5, 2009 at 5:00 am

This is a wonderful article…. thanks for sharing…

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August 5, 2009 at 10:19 am

very complete article. Thank you. Judy

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August 5, 2009 at 8:35 pm

This is a wonderful article, full of information. Good for beginners and also as a reminder for the rest of us. 🙂

Thanks. .-= Jo Castillo´s last blog .. Another Hunting Sketch =-.

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August 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Great article, so much information,Thank you

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August 11, 2009 at 6:20 am

it was very helpful

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August 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Thanks for this excellent article

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August 27, 2009 at 2:18 pm

I’ve been searching for such an article for so long. You’ve outlined things in a way that will make it much easier to understand and render what the eye sees. Thank you.

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September 1, 2009 at 8:54 pm

the lesson is an artistic antacid for a creatively constipated artist. it is well cherished

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September 8, 2009 at 4:17 am

Great articles and Thanks a million for the visuals. I did a painting a while ago and had some issues with the shading. I really wish I had seen this article back then. Great stuff. Keep it coming!!! Thanks…

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September 22, 2009 at 11:04 am

basic knowledge of drawing is how to create light and dark sides of our object image and here I can get that knowledge -.

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September 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm

I was actually looking for a word to describe light and dark as a concept and i think you article shed a little light on the darkness. Do you have any other word to describe light and dark as a concept. Thanks

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April 23, 2010 at 9:52 am

A very comprehensive article. Many of my vague concepts were cleared.

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May 1, 2010 at 2:17 am

tried a lot to understand light n shade…..this article made me clear about many confusions i was goin thru!!! thnks a lot [o_0]

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May 11, 2010 at 6:08 am

This is a brilliant article Sheri. My son is currently studying art at A-Level and doing brilliantly. Sketching is his favourite side of art and this will be invaluable.

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July 15, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Great stuff! keep up the good work, ilook forward to reading more of your articles

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July 19, 2010 at 3:30 am

thank u for ur explanation on light and shade.being a fine art student am have been confused on Chiaroscuro.his article made me clear about many confusions.thank u once agail Sheri.

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October 5, 2010 at 2:07 am

Feel like I am in class with my teacher again. 😉 Thank you for this great lesson.

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November 6, 2010 at 2:51 am

i am quite new to painting, and am always scared of color combinations not knowing if one chosen would really work. this article has developed my understanding of paint and its shades. immense gratitude and thanks to the author for putting it simply to dummies like me.

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March 12, 2011 at 7:40 am

This is absolutely informing. I had a great time with this lesson. I struggled a lot with how light hits an object, particularly with the angles of light. Thank you.

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March 31, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I loved the lesson. I bookmarked for future referencing. I’m new to drawing and art; but, I’m not wasting any time to understand every viable principle in art to achieve great and realistic work. Thank you!

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May 5, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Sheri, I have never seen drawing explained quite like this. I love how you talk about the different angles of light and shadows.Again Awesome! Thank you for the awesome article!

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June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Perhaps the most thorough explanation of value and it’s importance that I have found. In my opinion, value is the most important element of art.

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June 25, 2011 at 10:04 pm

thanks for the help! wonderful article. 🙂 i have now my assignment in drafting.

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July 14, 2011 at 2:38 am

I like your lesson on Light and Shadow. I need to find more lessons and learn to improve my drawing skill on internet.

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August 23, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I’ve been an art instructor and illustrator for more than 20 years. What is your source for the impressionist theory of painting flat surface planes? Value has always been a vital tool and multiple light sources were not a big concern with impressionist painters as a group. Impressionism developed from the idea of using tonal shapes reflected on the retina of the eye versus the more sculptural painting and drawing of most Renaissance Masters whose works depicted form as 3D objects identified in space by touch and ‘sympathetic touch memory’. Impressionists identified every tone shape as a light and assigned a color value to the brightest tint and deepest shade. Color temperature and chroma exceeded value and volume as a painting concern for most impressionists. They were interested in depth as the relationships of color value shapes juxtaposed in space. Light source, like value is inseparable from representational works and was unavoidable, just not a primary concern.

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September 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm

This is really a good article! Very impressive and helpful.

Best Regards, Vlad

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October 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Brilliant article, I’ve bought a few recommended books on the subject, but this made things much clearer to me, thank you 🙂

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January 22, 2012 at 6:44 am

You have laid the cornerstone upon which the building of all art rises. When this is understood, really, then all doors of creativity and confidence are opened; freedom of ones expressions now unfold.

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January 24, 2012 at 11:36 am

Thank you do much for sharing! Great article and it really helped me.

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January 26, 2012 at 5:18 am

I would like to ask you a Q. What do you think it is that the quality of the light effects the value of color?

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May 11, 2012 at 5:52 am

Beautiful article, nice presentation.

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September 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Excellent tutorial on light and shadow! Thank you.

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November 23, 2012 at 9:03 am

This website is known as a walk-by means of for all the info you wished about this and didn’t know who to ask. Glimpse right here, and also you’ll definitely discover it.

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November 28, 2012 at 3:45 am

its very nice article,simple and clear.. thank u so much

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June 17, 2014 at 2:08 am

This is the best article I’ve read so far, I wish they would explain the subject like this in art school…

Thank you so mach for this one.

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June 17, 2014 at 2:52 am

I’m late to the party, but in case you’re reading this, THANK YOU!

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December 13, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I stopped water coloring because I was making some great pictures, but I didn’t really understand how I was doing it. I decided to use graphite to train my eye and mind–wow, was it hard to get any information about how to observe what happens to light. I’d intuitively got the dark side, but yikes on the light–missing link was the distance of the light source. Thank you, thank you.

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February 28, 2015 at 6:46 am

sorry. you just share some images about shade. U didn0t explain or teach to people the rules behind shade on perspective, or axonometry.

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April 10, 2015 at 2:53 am

it was really of great help, felt like i was in a drawing class. Thank u.

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June 21, 2015 at 9:47 am

This is what we call a complete art class Its actually better than my college lectures..Thankyou so much.You are a great artist 🙂 Regards

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September 3, 2015 at 10:13 am

Excelente! Gracias Me ha servido mucho

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January 1, 2016 at 11:06 pm

Muy completo e instructivo. Gracias

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January 3, 2016 at 2:54 pm

De nada! Mercedes…

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May 3, 2016 at 1:59 pm


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December 13, 2016 at 6:27 am


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May 26, 2017 at 12:59 am

thank you a lot .

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January 2, 2018 at 4:14 pm

Uh, “Men of the Renaissance”? How about “Artists of the Renaissance” instead?

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February 11, 2019 at 7:21 am

Dear Sheri, You are a great artist and a generous soul. Thank you so much for sharing these extremely important and useful basics.

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October 17, 2019 at 10:21 pm

beside been pretty you are kind and virtue… because you are an excellent teacher ..!!

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