How to draw & paint realistic shadows in colored pencil, graphite and paint

If you’re interested in understanding how to draw anything realistically, you’ve got to understand how to see the shadows. The right placement of shadows helps artists create the three-dimensional illusion on a flat surface.

The distribution of light

This image shows a general distribution of light on reflective objects with the light coming from the right. As a result, the shadows are on the left.

How to draw shadows | This image shows the distribution of light on a solid object with the light coming from the left, forming shadows on the right. |Image taken from the “Creative techniques” art instruction book.

What are the shadows?

There are two types of shadows: the form (or core) shadow and the cast shadow.

The form shadow is present on the object itself, and is of the darkest value (tone). It appears where the light turns into darkness. You can see the form shadows on various objects including faces, fabric, flowers, etc. The form shadow makes the objects look three-dimensional, and if you don’t see it, the objects remain flat in your artwork.

The cast shadow(s) is situated right under the object and is always attached to it.

While the form shadows give the objects the roundness or volume, cast shadows give the physical presence to objects. They “make” the object look heavy set in the environment it’s in. Sometimes the cast shadows are a lot more interesting to draw than the object itself.

Some additional examples of cast shadows and form shadows:


how to draw shadows
The distribution of light on a sea-biscuit

Adjusting the light

If you see no clear shadows in your still life or a photo, it’s much harder to create the 3-D illusion on paper, if you’re a beginner. While we usually have no problem spotting the cast shadows seen on tables or windowsills, found under the fruit or vases, we do often find it difficult to pinpoint the location of the form shadow present on the fruit/object itself. Strong, directional lighting helps to find the form shadow. Play with the light to see a variety of shadows on and under your objects.

Seeing shadows in glass

Still life with a wine glass, 9×12 inches, lightfast colored pencils on paper, private collection

Not every object confirms to the same formula I’ve described above. For instance, drawing reflective objects and glass requires a different approach to create the 3-D illusion. I explain how to draw a wine glass and other surfaces in the step-by-step demonstrations listed here.


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