How to learn pencil shading

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Pencil shading techniques: 5 expert tips

Pencil shading techniques

(Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

If you want to master pencil shading techniques, it will take some practice. This is because different pencils create marks that are noticeably different from one another, and understanding which pencil does what is extremely important.

My best advice to learn shading is to go out and experiment with multiple pencils and explore different methods. In this article I’ll share my insight to help clarify the learning process. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to try shading with intent – and create drawings by employing a range of shading techniques.

If you need some new tools, here’s a rundown of the best pencils around. Plus, you can widen your technical expertise further with this guide to pencil drawing techniques or our roundup of the best how to draw tutorials.

Pencil shading techniques: Which pencils should you use?

I used HB mechanical pencils for a long time when I changed my focus from digital to traditional art. However, once I started working with regular pencils, there was a clear execution difference that I wasn’t able to produce with mechanical pencils alone. Since then I’ve discovered techniques on how to produce different textures, tones and results that I combine to create my pieces.

It wasn’t just the different HB hardness pencils that showed me the clear difference, such as shading with a 4B versus a 4H. I learned that the tip of the pencil also gave vastly different results. For example, a more rounded tip gave a larger, softer result and was more efficient to work with.

01. Choose your pencils carefully

Pencil shading: pencils
Having a duller-tipped pencil will produce larger areas while shading. They’ll also create more of a textured look the higher you go up the B scale (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

I recommend having a few solid pencils at hand that you can use in your work with full knowledge of the results they’ll produce. There’s a noticeable difference when working with different pencils on the HB scale and how sharp or dull the tip is. Test and see how some will produce dark texture while others create consistent mid-tone smoothness.

Pencil shading: pencils
Going higher on the H scale will produce lighter yet smoother, buttery looking results. Using a small tip mechanical pencil will create precision, but often will smooth out the paper texture when shading to create a more matte look (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

02. Create different types of shading

Pencil shading: different types
The different methods create wildly different results (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Every artist will find the shading method that works best for them and I tend to use a few while drawing. I primarily work with circling, but I’ve experimented with all of these methods and more to help me create my best results. Each method produces a distinct result and depending on what type of art you want to create, you’ll want to find which is best for you! Hatching and stippling often create an underlying presence of texture and roughness. Circling and using a blending stump creates clean, gradual smoothness.

03. Get to know your values when shading

Pencil shading: values
The simple sphere example shows a clear and easy-to-understand separation of values from a singular light source and the shadows it creates (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Take the time to understand how lighting works and the values it creates to shade properly. Do studies, find references and resources that provide this insight, and then apply that knowledge in your practice pieces. There’s a range of value to work with, not just dark and light.

Pencil shading: values
Understanding how lighting works will drastically influence your shading execution and consistency in your work (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

04. Practice helps to provide insight

Pencil shading: insight
You can see how I build up the values slowly, creating a foundation that I can confidently make darker marks on top of (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Now that I’ve been working with a handful of pencils with each drawing, I know when to switch over to another for a particular result. It’s traditional and effective to start with a lighter H pencil and then gradually work darker into the B scale, to punch out the values and contrast.

Pencil shading: practice
Higher B pencils tend to be harder to erase and that’s why I normally start with a 2H pencil in my work (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

05. Discover which shading techniques suit your style

Pencil shading: techniques
While neither method is wrong, in time you’ll find which technique works best for you. This is why I recommended experimenting (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Here’s an example of two different types of shading methods. The left half has a softer realism finish with gradations on the paper texture done with a circling method and a slow build-up of value. The right half was done primarily with hatching and creates a crisp bold finish.

Introduction to Pencil Shading

Sketch Drawing Concept
 MrIncredible / Getty Images
  • 01of 08Point and Flat ShadingPoint and Flat Shading H SouthThe first step to successful pencil shading is to control the movement of your pencil, making sure that every mark you make on the paper works towards creating the shading or modeling effect that you want. The following pages offer a few tips to get you started. To begin with, decide whether you want to use the point or side of the pencil to shade with.The example at left is shaded with the point, at right, with the side. The difference doesn’t show up clearly in the scan, but you can see that the side shading has a grainier, softer look and covers a large area quickly (a chisel-point pencil will also give this effect). Using a sharp point to shade allows you more control, you can do much finer work, and get a greater range of tone out of the pencil.Experiment with both to see how they look on your paper. Try shading with hard and soft pencils, too.This article is copyright of Helen South. If you see this content elsewhere, they are in breach of copyright law. This material is NOT open source or public domain.
  • 02of 08Pencil Shading Problemspencil shadings H SouthWhen pencil shading, the first thing most people do is to move the pencil back and forth in a regular pattern, with the ‘turn’ at the end of each movement roughly parallel, as in the first example. The trouble is, when you use this technique to shade a large area, that even edge gives you a dark line through your area of tone. Sometimes it is only subtle, but often it looks very obvious and spoils the illusion that you are trying to create with your pencil shading. Let’s look at some ways to fix this.
  • 03of 08Irregular ShadingIrregular pencil shading H SouthTo prevent unwanted banding through a shaded area, change the pencil direction at irregular intervals, making one stroke long, then next short, overlapping where needed. The example at left shows an exaggerated example of how this effect is begun; at right the finished result.
  • 04of 08Circular Shadingscumbling, pencil shading H SouthAn alternative to regular ‘sideways’ pencil shading is to use small, overlapping circles. This is similar to ‘scumbling’ or the ‘brillo pad’ technique, except that the object here is to minimize texture, rather than create one. To do this, you need to use a light touch with the pencil and work an area in an irregular, overlapping pattern to gradually build up the graphite on the page. A particularly light touch is required for lighter areas to avoid a ‘steel wool’ texture developing.
  • 05of 08Directional ShadingDirectional pencil shading H SouthDirection – don’t underestimate it! Here’s a really rough change of direction: with two coarsely shaded areas side by side – there’s no missing the difference! Drawn like this, it is screamingly obvious: one has a big horizontal movement, the other vertical, and the edge between the two is very clear.Now, if you are shading an object, even if your shading is more even and the pencil marks less obvious, this effect is still there – just more subtly. You can use it, to create a suggestion of an edge or a change of plane. But it will also suggest a change of plane even if you don’t intend it to. You don’t want to randomly change direction in the middle of an area. The eye will read it as ‘meaning’ something. Control the direction of your shading.Try shading an object in various ways: using no visible direction (circular shading), one continuous direction, few big changes, and many subtle changes.
  • 06of 08Using Lineweight in Shadinglineweight pencil shading H SouthWhen using directional shading, you can vary the pressure on the pencil to create light and dark tones. Controlling it very precisely can allow you to model smooth forms. A more relaxed approach to lifting and re-weighting the pencil for a fairly continuous line is useful for creating highlights across textures like hair or grass.
  • 07of 08Contour ShadingDirectional Pencil Shading H SouthContour pencil shading uses directional shading which follows the contours of a form. In this example, contour shading is used in combination with line weight, adjusting the pressure to create light and shade. This allows you to create strong dimensional effects in your pencil drawing. You can control these factors precisely or use a relaxed and expressive approach. Be sure to take perspective into account, so that the direction of shading changes correctly along a form drawn in perspective.
  • 08of 08Shading in PerspectivePencil shading in Perspective H SouthIf you are doing a quick sketch or roughly shading an area, the direction of the pencil marks can be very obvious, and even a quite dense shading can still reveal directional marks. A common mistake that beginners make is to begin shading along one edge of an object in perspective and to continue that direction all the way down so that by the time they reach the bottom, the direction of shading is working against the perspective, as in the panel at top left. Beside it is a panel shaded horizontally: again the shading fights against the perspective and flattens the drawing.In the second example, the direction of shading follows the perspective correctly, with the angle changing gradually so that it is always along an orthogonal (vanishing line). With a practiced eye, you can do this by instinct, or, as you see in the example, you can draw subtle guidelines back to the vanishing point first. The right panel of this box is shaded vertically. This doesn’t accentuate the foreshortening as perspective shading does, but it also doesn’t fight against it. Another good option is to use circular shading and avoid creating any directional movement at all.

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