How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets)

How to draw realistic shadows header image. Pencil drawing of a cat in the shadow of a chair, with pencils.

How do you make flat, lifeless, pencil shading look like a three-dimensional shadow? In this post, I will teach you how to draw realistic shadows in pencil the correct way.

The outline of a shadow varies in softness. On a flat plane, depth is created by making the inner shadow slightly lighter than the outer boundary. The shadow side of an object is altered by reflected light rebounding from another source. Realistic shadows are not flat tones

It sounds easy but how do you apply this knowledge? That’s what we’ll discuss here.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

What Pencils Do You Need to Draw Realistic Shadows?

In most instances, it makes more sense to use a softer grade of pencil to draw realistic shadows. It’s not easy to recommend a grade because every company grades their pencils differently. It all depends on your choice of brands.

I like to use an HB Derwent Graphic pencil (affiliate) to draw realistic shadows, at the start of the drawing. I find that an ‘HB’ in Derwent is pretty soft. I get a very satisfying dark on finely grained cartridge paper.

I also like to use Pentel Mechanical Pencils (affiliate) I prefer to use ‘B’. It has a smooth rich feel and pleasing tone.

Both pencils are great for the preliminary stages of the drawing. I use them to map out my composition and indicate stronger shadows. I’ll refine the shading as I progress.

Drawing with mechanical pencils has been a game-changer, read this: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils?

As I start building the tone I will decide which pencils to use as I go along. If the tones aren’t strong enough I might use a softer grade. I rarely go darker than ‘3B’ in either brand because I hate that graphite shine you get with softer pencils.

If you prefer video learning try this course on Skillshare (affiliate). Bret Eviston is popular.

Shading Techniques You’ll Need to Draw Realistic Shadows

Apply Pencil Tone in Layers For Greater Realism

It’s far more effective to draw realistic shadows up in layers than to go in with a strong tone straight away. You will almost certainly get the values wrong in the early stages of your drawing and making the shading lighter is trickier than making it darker.

I build up in layers. It’s slower and more controlled. I will use the same grade of pencil with a light touch until I’ve maxed out the tone. If I need to go darker I will go a grade softer and repeat the process.

What I don’t do, and advise you not to do, is press harder with the pencil to get a stronger line. Why? Because the harder you press down on the paper, the more difficult it is to repair a mistake.

Firm pressure will damage the paper surface. There are times when this is useful, but in general, it is bad practice.

If you need help choosing paper, this post will help: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing?

Realistic Shading Techniques in Pencil

When I make my rough sketch I tend to hatch in one even diagonal. The aim is to indicate where the strongest darks will be. The refining comes next and I may well decide to erase the initial hatching. It’s only a guide.

I build layers by cross-hatching, slowly and precisely. I will shade in a shadow by hatching parallel diagonals from the bottom left to top right. I shade the whole shape before I reverse the hatching and go the other way.

Diagram showing how to draw realistic shadows. A cat drawing.

If I’m working at an easel I will hatch top left to bottom right, if I’m working on a flat surface I will spin the paper round and hatch that way. Again I fill in the shape. I repeat the process until the tone looks about right.

I like to draw on textured paper and I’m careful to shade lightly in order to keep the grain visible. I’d rather spend the time adding more layers than to lose the grainy effect by applying more pressure.

I go into more detail here: How to Draw Texture in Pencil

In order to maintain an even shade, it’s important to use the pencil with a chamfered (sloping) edge, not a point. The idea is to glide the pencil over the surface. If you. lose the edge, twist the pencil to regain it, or swipe it over a very fine emery paper, and carry on where you left off.

Mechanical pencil tip chamfered for shading realistically
Chamfered Pencil ‘Lead’

Minor marks, where shading patches meet, can be removed with a piece of Blu-Tak. Knead a very thin fine point and brush over the mark extremely lightly. Only the surface ‘lead’ will be removed and the ‘join’ will disappear.

Random shading where you criss-cross the shade at every angle is fine if that’s the effect you want. I use it for indeterminate backgrounds mostly. I don’t use it when I want realism.

Random strokes quickly look messy. You’ll discover that where two shading patches meet they overlap and if you ‘scribble’ instead of hatch (parallel lines), drawing an even tone is impossible.

Choosing the Correct Pencil Width For Shading

Pentel mechanical pencils have a range of sizes, 0.2mm, 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, and 0.9mm. Intuition suggests you would be wise to choose the biggest 0.9mm gauge, but there is a problem. Wider nibs make grainier lines.

If you, like me, want to draw on paper with a fine tooth, shading with 0.9mm will be too coarse. A slimmer nib makes a more delicate mark. I prefer to shade with a 0.3mm pencil. It’s slow progress, but the grain it leaves adds sparkle to the shading that I can’t get it any other way.

The issue is not as obvious with a standard drawing pencil. The lead will broaden as it becomes blunter with use. It’s up to you to assess the level of wear and judge when it’s appropriate to resharpen the point.

This post explains how to use different pencil grades: What Do Pencil Numbers Mean?

Don’t use a graphite stump as a shortcut, not to draw realistic shadows, they’re far too coarse and clumsy.

How to Hold a Drawing Pencil Properly For Shading

Holding a pencil with a light touch is much easier if you hold the pencil at a very shallow angle beneath your palm. The idea is to maintain a consistent angle without much pressure for as long as possible.

How to hold a pencil when shading. Hand in the correct position
How to hold a pencil lightly when shading

Top Tip: Try moving your arm back and forth from your elbow in a sweeping motion. It’s easier to draw longer and more accurate hatching lines.

If you want precision, draw from the wrist.

If you need some video tuition check out Steven Zapata on Proko (affiliate)

Steven Zapata

How to Draw The Edge of The Shadow Realistically

The edge of the shadow will differ according to the strength of the light, the distance the shadow is cast from the object, and the angle it is viewed.

The edge is always diffused to a greater or lesser extent. Very sharp linear edges tend to look wrong.

Example of drawing a realistic shadow in pencil
Shadow edge example

I taper the shading at the edge of the shadow. I might do that by using the side of the pencil lead to make the edge less distinct and grainier or I might rub out the edge with a kneadable eraser.

Softer edges can be shaded out using a progressively lighter touch until the tone disappears. If you don’t want to retain the grain, or you draw on a smooth paper surface, you can soften the edges with a cotton bud.

How to Draw Realistic Depth in the Shadow

Over the years I’ve come to realize that a shadow, cast over a flat surface, looks more authentic if the core is lighter than the outer rim.

If I am drawing dappled shade I always add a slightly darker diffused border, regardless of whether I can detect it in real life. It looks real and that’s all I need to know.

This sister post teaches you: How to Create Depth in Your Drawing

The darkest shadow is the point where two objects meet and there is little or no reflected light. For example, the area where a foot meets the ground will be very dark and taper into the surrounding cast shadow. Without the dark (occidental) shadow the object will appear to float above its base.

Calculating Where The Shadow Lies

A low light source, like a setting sun, casts a long shadow. A high light source, like the midday sun, shortens the shadow. It’s easy to understand but it’s not always so easy to implement.

Most tutorials will show you a diagram showing radials from a light source, hitting the contours of an object. the shadow ends where the trajectory of the line touches a surface. Fine in theory and of little use in real life.

Light source, sphere, and shadows diagram. Calculating where a shadow lies.
Light source, radials, and shadow placement

Now apply those rules to a landscape, in all its complexity, and add some people or animals to the scene, and it’s not so easy.

Listen to Stephen Bauman in this free tutorial and then check out his portrait course on Proko (affiliate)

When do you really need to add shadows? If you are drawing a scene from life, or a reference, you have all the information there in front of you. You only need to calculate where the shadows lie if you are manipulating the composition.

Maybe you’re adding a figure to a scene or wish to merge two reference photos together. How do you tackle that? If the two photos have different light sources you have a problem.

My first reaction is to try and source a photo that looks very similar to my reference. I scour the internet, Instagram, and google images. It’s a long process but eventually, I will find an image that helps me to make an informed guess.

If you are adding a human figure buy an artist’s model figure (affiliate) and shine a light on it. That couldn’t be easier. If you’re adding animals, can you find some plastic toys and use those? Take a look on eBay.

Manikin model with a strong shadow
Manikin (affiliate) with a shadow

There are times when it’s virtually impossible to place the shadow correctly without a mock-up of some kind to show you the way. The shapes and contours are too complex.

I have a book by Robert Bateman, one of the world’s great wildlife painters, and there’s a photo of him using a clay model of an egret to help him place it in his painting.

Sometimes you have to go the extra mile.

Using Reflected Light And Contrast in Your Shadows

In real life, light is bouncing around all over the place. Just because there is a single source of light doesn’t mean there’s an even shadow. Light reflects from different surfaces at different angles.

cats sleeping in dappled shadow
Cats and dappled shadow

Think of a photographer using white reflectors to bounce light onto a subject to illuminate the shot. They are using reflected light creatively but the same principle applies to everything we see.

Reflected light adds depth, contrast, and interest, to an otherwise dull object. When I draw a rounded shape, I rarely draw a gradient to the edge of a contour. I draw the darkest point short of the edge and reverse the gradient to the border.

Reflected light not only adds form, but it also contrasts the object from a dark background. It’s so effective that I will add light even if it’s not evident in real life. Increasing contrast strengthens depth perception and makes the object look more 3D.

Drawing Realistic Shadows – Final Thoughts

To coin a cliche, practice makes perfect. The more you sit down and draw the easier it all becomes. You’ll start to recognize recurring problems and eventually the solutions will become more apparent.

Don’t waste too much time on theory. Draw what you see and put more emphasis on contrast. You’ll learn to draw realistic shadows in no time.

These are the basic drawing tools I can’t live without: (Amazon affiliate links)

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How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets)