advice for shading figure drawings

Popular but bad SHADING advice

 

“Ok so here’s how you shade, you get the blending stump and you carefully smoosh the tones around and add fine gradations and nuance, and boom! You have shaded your figure to perfection!”

I downloaded the TikTok app and did everything i could not to get sucked in to the addictive dopamine vortex. I typed in ‘shading‘ and half of what I found was guidance about rendering techniques. In other words, adding the finer nuances of shading to your drawing.

99% of artists don’t need to worry about rendering in fine detail yet and maybe that is you too. You might need to get better at simplifying the values you’re seeing and make the shapes of the light and dark meaningful in terms of form. And then in terms of simple anatomy. Once you can do that, you start learning how to design those shapes to also be really appealing. And then you’ll be ready to start rendering – in other words pushing and pulling details inside of those shapes to express more advanced anatomical information, but that is a long way down the road.

A more useful tip here is learning to squint at what you’re drawing and find those simpler shapes of light areas versus dark areas. I was always taught that squinting was bad for your eyes so it feels wrong to do it, but it’s fine and it’s so useful for you as an artist. Try squinting at the reference on the left below and you’ll hopefully see the simple shapes of light and dark which I showed on the right:

a tip to improve your figure drawing shading is to simplify your shadow shapes

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If you have the shapes defined, you can fill with 3 to 5 levels of value. When you do that, the first thing to focus on, as you’ve hopefully heard before, is keeping the darks dark and the lights light, keeping the two groups separate. The point is that you can keep working on this “grouping of value” skill for quite a long time.

The easiest example to look at here is Steve Huston, one of my favourite figure artists. He is rendering beautifully. Look at the image below on the right, at the lovely anatomical information being pulled out within the light area, and within the dark area. But look at how clearly that rendering is secondary to the big shapes of light versus dark which I tried to show on the left. That’s what you learn first.

shading analysis of a figure drawing by artist Steve Huston

 

So these TikTok tutorials aren’t necessarily bad, it’s just the title of them that can be misleading. They imply that this is “how to shade” while missing the major building blocks of what makes shading work. And the real risk with that is that you might try to apply these methods, it doesn’t work, and then you blame yourself, as if you lack the talent or something. This happens a lot in all areas of art learning, it happened to me a tonne.

I think it happens for two reasons:

Firstly It’s easier to make and consume this type of content. It’s a lot easier to explain these little decorating tips in a quick video, and it’s a lot easier to watch them and feel like you learned something. It’s much harder to explain a fundamental principle which requires you to rewire your brain. Our brains are not built to see big simple shapes, they are built to see contrast. I made a video on this phenomenon, I’ll link it here. But making and consuming a video about finer contrast and nuance makes more sense to us than simplifying tutorials.

how to simplify the main shadow shapes in a figure drawing

Secondly, a lot of experienced artists have already built those fundamental skills and now they are having fun with their rendering and stuff and so that is more top of their mind. They might have even forgotten what it was like to not see the simplified shapes first.

 

simplified shadow shapes in a figure drawing

Like this reference? Access this and more in our free reference library

 

This also applies to the other 50% of tutorials I found on TikTok. They were focused on how to make the shading marks. So some talk about stippling, crosshatching vertical hatching etc and some like to get into how to use digital blending modes and layers to add shading.

Again none of it is bad, but it’s not about the fundamental skill, finding simple shapes of value. It doesn’t matter too much how you do the shading, what matters is that you keep it simple and define those shapes.

This applies to other areas too. For some of you, in your future, you’ll be a concept artist and photobashing will be a useful skill. But to be good with that, you’ve got to build your actual drawing skills first. Maybe gradient maps will be part of how you like to colour in future. But first you have to learn about colour and light principles, like how colours bounce into shadows, how subsurface scatter intensifies saturation. If these phrases I’m saying don’t make sense, then I wouldn’t spend time yet on mastering digital functions designed to speed up the process – learn about the underlying principles first.

Ever notice that things promoted online as quick and easy “hacks” are never actually hacks? They either are the normal way to do something, or don’t really work, or only work if you’re already successfully doing it the hard way. In other words, there’s no getting around the hard path.

Use well lit references

Did you notice that the references used in this article were lit to create clear shapes of light and dark? It is really important for your practice to use well lit references such as these. We set up our photoshoots for this specific purpose and you can access the references for free. Find out more here.

I have another article about how to become good at the ‘grouping of values’ skill here.

 

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