A Beginner’s Tutorial on Applying Light and Shadow in Art

applying light and shadow in art

Art Ignition is supported by its audience. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn More.

Light and shadow are some of the most powerful tools in your artistic toolkit. These fundamentals help you craft paintings that seem to leap out at the viewer.

The fundamentals of light and shadow in art are among my favorites. With just a few strokes of a pencil or brush, I can create something that feels real enough to touch. In fact, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned along the way that greatly enhanced my understanding.

Just like any other art fundamental, you can break light and shadow into simple parts. My guide has easy-to-follow tutorials and essential terminology to get you on the path to mastery.

How to Shade a Sphere in Graphite

Before you dive into complex subjects like humans or still lives, it’s easier to learn the fundamentals with a simple sphere. The toolkit for this tutorial is simple: just a pencil, paper, and an eraser.

While you can use any eraser, kneaded erasers are best since you can shape them like clay. This makes it easy to erase tiny areas or ‘lift off’ large areas.

how to shade a sphere in graphite
(Image Source)

Any kind of sphere will do. You can use a toy ball or something else round and shiny, like an apple. Just make sure your sphere doesn’t have patterns, designs, or anything else that could distract from the lesson.

Step #1: Position Your Reference Under a Strong Light Source

Your first step is to place your reference under a bright light source to get the full effect of the tutorial. If your light source is too dim, you’ll miss out on subtle details such as cast or occlusion shadows.

Create a dedicated space for your sphere, such as a still-life box where you can shift different items around. While daylight is beautiful, it’s unreliable if you want to take your time. A desk light or nearby table lamp is more than sufficient.

Place your sphere on a light surface, like a pale rag or a light-colored table. This feature will do wonders for creating reflected light.

Step #2: Do a Simple, Fast Sketch on Paper

The sketch doesn’t need to be complex since we’re focusing predominantly on light and shadow. You can speed up this step by using a circular template or the bottom of a mug.

There’s no shame if you have difficulty creating a smooth circle – shortcuts like shape templates, rulers, and grids are staples of artists everywhere. In fact, stencils were used by some of the world’s oldest human societies.

Step #3: Draw Out Light and Shadow

One of my most valuable experiences in community college was learning to draw out light and shadow. Yes, you can draw out your cast shadow or soft light before shading!

Understanding light is easier when you view both light and shadow as their own shapes. You can trace out a single light source with a hard edge, just like you’d trace the edges of an existing drawing. You can then find dark areas and separate them with another hard edge.

This technique helps you figure out how you will approach your drawing with paint or crosshatching. While you’ll need to get comfortable visualizing the final piece, mapping out light, mid tones, and shadow takes some of the guesswork out.

Step #4: Start Filling in Each Shadow With Crosshatching

Avoid getting wrapped up in the minor details of your spherical object or the surrounding items. Focus on bringing out the form in the sphere with the most basic light and shadow: highlight, highlight, core shadow, and cast shadow.

You don’t have to jump straight into the widest tonal range. It can be helpful to start light with the lightest mid-tones, then gradually darken toward your cast shadow. Going over your lines repeatedly will both darken and smooth out an area.

If you go too dark, too quickly, this approach can make it harder for you to erase your mistakes.

Once you block in the basics, you can transition into the more subtle areas such as the halftone, terminator, and center light. A combination of crosshatching and using your eraser will help you create softer transitions between light areas, mid-tones, and darker areas.

Step #5: Use Your Eraser to Exaggerate Highlights and Create Reflected Light

One of the most enjoyable parts of using an eraser is not just fixing a mistake but enhancing what’s on the page. Erasers allow you to carve out light by removing darker parts of your drawing.

Once your mid-tones and form shadows are in place, you can go back in with your eraser and lift graphite off the opposite end of the sphere. This trick is fantastic for simulating bounce light or ambient light.

How to Shade a Sphere in Paint 

Art’s fundamentals of light and shadow translate well from pencil to paint. However, you should know a few nuances depending on the type of paint.

Tools You’ll Need for This Tutorial

Shading a sphere with acrylic, oil, or gouache also doesn’t need many mediums – just your surface, paint, and brush. I also recommend a pencil, eraser, paper, and transfer sheet for getting a sketch onto your surface.

If you use oil paints, you’ll need an oil like walnut, poppy, or safflower. If you prefer acrylic or gouache, just water.

While you can use additives to speed up or slow down drying times, you won’t need them for this simple tutorial.

Step #1: Position Your Reference Under a Bright Light

Similar to the first tutorial, you’ll need a bold light source and something reflective on the bottom or side for reflected light. Bright light not only creates more exaggerated form shadow and cast shadow, but it also enhances your colors.

Again, I don’t recommend an item that’s covered in splashy details or tons of different colors. A smoothly colored ball, apple, or orange is a straightforward option for this exercise.

Step #2: Draw Your Sphere Onto the Canvas or Use Transfer Paper

Since the subject is a circle, either directly drawing onto the canvas or using transfer paper is suitable for a beginner. Again, I recommend using a template to save you time.

Step #3: Consider Drawing Out Your Light and Shadow

Like with the graphite tutorial, you can also map out your light and shadow before you paint. Once you’re ready to paint, you’ll cover up this linework gradually.

In the video above, you can see the artist lightly mapping out the borders between lighter areas and shadows before fully committing to the darkest part.

The next steps will also show you how to map out light and shadow as well as paint the rest.

lighting drawing
(Image Source)

Step #4: Lay Down the Base Colors

Laying down flat colors without any blending or changes in light/shadow is more than acceptable for now. This step also helps overcome hesitation when starting a painting since it’s just filling in your linework.

However, that’s not to say this step doesn’t teach you anything. Laying down base colors crisply within your linework will be a lesson in motor control. You’ll also have some good practice accurately capturing the color or shades of your subject.

It’s also important to pay attention to how your paint interacts with the surface. Acrylic paint dries quite fast, while oil paint takes longer. Gouache also dries fairly fast, but you can make it wet again if you add more water.

lay down the base colors

Step #5: Block In Your Shadows First

I recommend starting with shadows for three main reasons. First, they’re more dramatic to the eye and pop out at the viewer much more intensely than pale light.

The second reason is that the dark-to-light technique is widespread in multiple painting mediums, particularly oil and acrylic. This step will give you a great head start in crafting light and dark areas in a way that makes them pop.

Lastly, the shadow side – whether cast shadows or general dark tones – are nice and straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with starting things off easy as you get your feet wet with a complex art fundamental.

Try using a little oil or water to help your paint glide along the surface here. While a little blending between form shadows and core shadow is fine, don’t go overboard. You want to get comfortable with shadow shapes first before you dive into the buttery details.

block in your shadows first

Step #6: Block in Your Light Areas

Once all of your shadows are in place, your flat surface will already start looking more three-dimensional. It’s time to gather up your direct light by adding in the basic hard light and highlight of your sphere.

While using a little water or oil is terrific for shadows, light sources can benefit from both dry and wet. In fact, the dry brush technique does well for subtle areas such as center light. Since the effect is soft and loose, it stimulates the subtlety of light well.

block in your light areas

Fan brushes are useful for getting down a subtle half-tone or mid-tone with little effort. The soft edges do much of the blending for you and can create some truly buttery light.

However, wet paint is best for sharp highlights so you don’t dilute the paint at all. Many artists (myself included) will dab a speck of paint onto the palette, and then work directly from it.

light and shadow art

Light and Shadow Terms You Need to Know 

While light and shadow in art have many complex terms, the basics below will give you a well-rounded perspective. In fact, you can already create powerful and three-dimensional paintings with just these five.


The highlight is the brightest spot of light and closest to the direct light source. Use an extra visual example to portray this (such as a shiny spot on a person’s nose).

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer is a stellar example of light and shadow in art. You can see the direct light source in the upper center and right of the illustration.

Notice how the area brightest on the subject is her forehead and head covering. In contrast, the shadow side on the direct opposite of the light source darkens the tablecloths and far wall.

Becoming comfortable with these light and dark areas is easier when you understand how value in art works.


Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Girl With a Pearl Earring is another work by Johannes Vermeer you should study to understand light and shadow. This portrait shows incredibly subtle halftones along the subject’s cheek, nose bridge, and clothes.

This is a subtle part of the light and shadow spectrum, transitioning from the lightest area to the darkest area – basically, the ‘gray’ area. If you want to know the impact well-placed light and shadow can have on an audience, just read up on the enduring legacy of this portrait.

If you’ve ever admired how soft and seamless the transitions between light and shadow are, consider trying your hand at sfumato. This term refers to a technique that focuses on softening up colors and adding faint blurring to create an enchanting effect.

Form Shadow Core

While the first two terms refer to relatively soft areas of a subject, the form shadow core is where things get heavy and dramatic. The form shadow core refers to the darkest parts of the shadow, a feature that halftones often blend into.

form shadow core
Sacred and Profane Love by Giovanni Baglione

Sacred and Profane Love by Giovanni Baglione demonstrated the raw power of the form shadow core and how it can be used for multiple purposes. Not only does the light hitting the subjects make them pop out vividly, but it also sets the stage for an intense atmosphere.

A dark background with subjects ‘peeling’ out into the light is the basis for many bold and ferocious Renaissance paintings. In fact, this piece is also an example of a Renaissance painting technique known as chiaroscuro, an approach that used light sources to breathtaking effect.

Cast Shadow

Cast shadow is one of the easiest terms to remember since it’s the dark shadow beneath an object or a subject. In fact, it tends to be one of beginner artists’ first introductions to light sources in art.

cast shadow
The Night Watch by Rembrandt

The Night Watch by Rembrandt used cast shadows to accentuate the dark and mysterious atmosphere of one of his signature paintings. It’s important to remember that light and shadow exist in direct relation to each other – you literally can’t have one without the other.

The cast shadow beneath the two central subjects makes the surrounding light pop out even more. It also helps create the illusion of perspective by leveling out the ground beneath them – without these cast shadows, they would appear to be standing on mushy, undefined ground.

Reflected Light

Reflected light is one of my absolute favorite places to paint because it really rounds out a subject. This term refers to the light bouncing off a nearby object back onto the subject.

reflected light
Flaming June by Frederic Leighton

Flaming June by Frederic Leighton is a masterwork of how light reflecting onto a subject makes them feel much more alive. Look closely at the subject’s folded arms and how her vivid orange dress ‘bounces’ back onto her skin.

While the painting would still be stunning without it, the light coming off her gown lends an extra layer of warmth and nuance that’s true to life. Reflected light (also known as bounce light) is also unique in how it can blend into a halftone or bleed out of an occlusion shadow. This term really gives you an appreciation for how lively light and shadow is.

The rest of the painting is also cloaked in an ambient light that makes everything feel a little dreamlike. As you continue along your art journey, you’ll learn more about all the large and small ways you can add depth to your illustrations.

Strong Light and Shadow Will Make Your Paintings Feel Real 

Learning your way around light sources will make your art feel more alive than ever. Whether you’re sketching with a pencil or trying your hand at oil, this fundamental is brilliant at bringing your inner worlds to life.

However, it can still be daunting to understand more complex elements such as multiple light sources or subtle mid-tones. Was this article helpful? Sign up for Evolve Artist, an online resource with one-on-one feedback that will help you grasp light and shadow in art even more.

Featured Image: Source

Like our Content?
Share It With Other Artists

Article Written By