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Why is Shading So Difficult?

Why is Shading so Difficult?

Ah, shading. Depending on how you look at it, shading could be your favorite part of drawing or your most dreaded nightmare. How can shading be so difficult when it’s basically just a shadow?

For me, shading is pure bliss – listening to some nice, soothing music and getting into that flow state feeling where you’re both extremely focused and totally at peace is one of my favorite aspects of drawing.

(Now whether or not the shading turns out good is an entirely different story…)

While it is true that it is just a shadow, shading can do so much for your drawing. For one, it can bring your drawing to life. If you’re shading a colored picture, picking the right colors for shading helps make the colors of the picture pop out. If you’re doing it on a black-and-white portrait, shading helps the portrait look more interesting.

Shading can be difficult because you are trying to replicate how the light is hitting your chosen subject. If your shading is inaccurate your drawing, will look less readable and certainly less detailed. To better understand shading, think about where the light it is hitting, what are the brightest spots on your object and what are the darkest ones.

But how do we shade and why do some people find it so difficult?

To be perfectly honest, it’s not the shading that’s difficult. It’s deciding where you shade and how you do it.

There are many different ways to shade your drawing. Some of which are:

  • Hatching
  • Cross-hatching
  • Contour
  • Scribbled
  • Stippling
  • Circulism

These are only few of the many different ways artists shade. I will be talking about them more later in the article, as well as how to do them and when’s the best time to apply these shading methods. I’ll also talk about different things to draw to practice your shading, so keep reading!

Table of Contents

    How to Shade Drawings

    Not sure how to shade drawings? That’s fine. When I first started out as an artist, I too was a bit confused with shading.

    I couldn’t understand where to shade and how to do it.

    I just went with the “vibes” and shaded wherever I felt like it and my drawings ended up being inaccurate.

    But now that I’m a bit experienced, I can say that shading is actually not that complicated.

    You just have to find the light source in your drawing

    As I’ve mentioned earlier, shading is basically just a shadow. And if there’s a shadow, that means there’s a light source.

    A drawing can have one or multiple light sources. For simplicity’s sake, let’s stick with one light source.

    Let’s have a look at this picture.

    Our light source here is the sun. It’s on the left side of the drawing, which means it is hitting the left face of the object. Now if the light is hitting the left face of the object, that would mean the shadow or shade would be in the objects right face!

    To make it simpler, decide first where the light source is then identify where the light is hitting. Because once you’ve identified where the light hits your portrait, then it will be easier to pinpoint where the light doesn’t, and that’s where you shade!  

    You can shade by filling this area in with a darker color than your base color. (If it’s a black-and-white pencil portrait, then you can simply just fill this area with your pencil)

    Now that you know how to shade, let’s discuss the different types of shading and how to apply them!

    Different Types of Shading

    As I said earlier, there are different types of shading. For a brief summary, have a look at this table:

    Different Types of Shading Definition
    HatchingMaking parallel lines together repeatedly in a particular section of a drawing.
    Cross-HatchingDrawing lines crossing over each other to create shade or value.
    ContourLines that follow the contour (the outline) of a drawing.
    ScribblingShading by repetitive scribbling in a particular section of a drawing.
    StipplingA pattern of dots drawn individually together to create a shape or a shade.
    CirculismCreation of several circles overlapping each other to create shade or add texture.
    Different Types of Shading

    These methods can be achieved by drawing lines, smudging, or simply just scribbling. The task is getting it to look good and compliment your drawing instead of it looking like a mess. While seemingly difficult, it’s not impossible. Just remember:

    Decide where the light source is and identify where it’s hitting.

    Before you continue reading, have a quick look at this video to understand the basics of lighting:

    From there, the shading should be a tad bit easier for you.

    Now let’s discuss each of these shading techniques in more detail:


    Hatching is one of the many shading methods out there. Hatching is a great method of adding shadow or texture to your drawing.

    It is done by drawing several parallel lines together in one particular section of a drawing. These lines could be vertical or horizontal. Sometimes, if you’re feeling a bit brave, these lines could even be curved.

    The thickness of these lines depends on whatever art style you want to portray, but generally speaking, the thicker the lines the darker the shade is. The same applies for the space between the lines. The closer the lines are together, the darker the shade will be.  

    If you want your drawing to have a darker shade or if you want specific parts of your drawing to have darker shades, you have to draw thick lines. To do so, simply add weight to your pencil.


    Cross-hatching is like hatching’s younger sister. But instead of the classic sibling rivalry, these two actually work well together.  

    Cross-hatching is done by making lines and crossing them with lines perpendicular to the first ones, hence the name cross-hatching. Just like hatching, cross-hatching adds value and texture to your drawing.

    Similarly, the darkness of the shade created will depend on the thickness of the lines and the spaces between them. You can also vary the straightness of your lines and the length of each cross to make some areas lighter and some areas darker.

    And if you combine cross-hatching and hatching, you can give your drawings this impressionistic art style.

    Framley Parsonage – Was it not a Lie?,1860. John Everett Millais (d.1896) and Dalziel Brothers


    Contour is hatching and cross-hatching’s distant cousin twice removed. Just like the previous methods, contour is done by the use of lines. However, the difference with contour is that the lines follow the contour of the drawing.  

    The contour of your drawing is basically its outline or the defining shapes that make your drawing. To do this shading method, you have to draw several lines based on the contour of your drawing and have them travel across the object of your drawing.

    The lines could be curved or straight, and just like hatching and cross-hatching, the shade is defined by how close the lines are together.

    Contour was made popular by Kimon Nicolaïdes in The Natural Way to Draw and it’s a great artistic tool to define the shapes of your drawings. However, if you’re just doing a regular portrait, contour shading isn’t the best way to go about it unless you’re aiming for your portrait to be stylized.   


    Scribbling is just as its name implies. You shade by scribbling on your drawing. I know that sounds messy but trust me, (and trust the process) once you get the hang of this method, you’re never gonna wanna stop doing it.

    Scribbling, unlike the first three methods we discussed, is chaotic and does not follow a path. You literally just scribble on your drawing, letting your hand and your artistic intuition decide what’s going on and when to stop. It’s messy and it’s beautiful.

    To make a shade darker, you just scribble repeatedly on one spot until it’s dark enough to create a contrast. For a lighter shade, loosen the pressure on your pencil or pen and scribble in larger strokes.

    Although scribbling is different from the likes of hatching and cross-hatching, the idea still remains. You’re creating marks to make a shade. So the lesser the scribbles, the lighter the shade becomes.  

    It’s important to note that this method is not as clean as the others. So if this is your first time and you’re not satisfied with how your drawing turned out or if you think the scribbling method ruined your drawing, don’t worry!

    It’s not ruined. You just haven’t found your rhythm yet. And like with everything else, you’ll get better with time!


    Stippling! The art of creating value from something as microscopic as a dot!

    Stippling is done by repeatedly making dots to create the illusion of a shape or a shade. By carefully placing dots on specific areas of your drawing, you are shading.

    The darkness of the shade depends on the number of dots and the space between them. Few dots that are far apart from each other mimic a light shade. Dots that are huddled together creates a darker color. The more dots there are, the darker the color will be.

    This one requires a lot more patience than the previous methods as you have to individually make the dots, but the payoff is worth it.

    Once you’re done stippling, grab a magnifying glass and have a look at all the dots you’ve made. Think of it as the visual representation of an artist’s patience!

    Art doesn’t happen in just a second; they take hours, and sometimes days, weeks, and months. Yet you continue to create because in your head, you’re looking at a bigger picture.  


    I think of the circulism method as stippling’s more refined older sibling. Still chaotic, but slightly more mature.

    Circulism is the method of scribbling overlapping circles and then smudging the scribble to create a blur effect. The more the circles overlap, the darker the shade and the larger the smudge will be.

    Artists typically use this method on shading faces or clothing as the smudge that is created with this technique is generally a lot smoother than the rest of the methods I’ve mentioned.

    Use a finger, a tissue, or a cotton swab (or a makeup brush!) to smudge your circles together. If you find that after you’ve smudged the circles, the shade became a bit lighter, you can repeat the process by drawing more circles on top of your smudge! You can do this until you are satisfied with the darkness of the shade.

    Circulism is also good for adding texture to your drawing, especially on realistic portraits. Just like with stippling, this method is a bit time-consuming, as you have to draw individual circles to create a shade. And just as stippling is worth it, so is circulism!

    How to Get Better at Shading

    Now that you understand the basics of shading and its different techniques, you’re left wondering how to get better at shading. Two things.

    1. Draw
    2. Pictures

    You’re gonna need to draw a lot AND study a lot of pictures. There’s no way around it.

    You can also look at your favorite artists or well established artists to see how they handle shading, but my advice is have a look at real pictures.

    If you’re looking to learn how shading works on faces, you can look at portraits done by photographers and study how the light hits their subject’s face.

    Like I said before, once you know where the light hits, you’ll also know where it doesn’t, and that’s where you shade.

    Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

    Study several pictures and try to recreate them. You don’t have to make a perfect copy of the picture. You’re goal isn’t to be a copy machine, it’s to be better at shading.

    Just get the basic shapes of the picture’s down and recreate the shading.   

    What to Avoid When Shading

    Here’s a list of things to avoid when shading

    1. Avoid worrying whether a shade is too dark.
      • A lot of beginner artists tend to worry whether the shading is a bit too dark. This causes them to settle for a light shade that barely creates contrast in their art. This makes their art look flat. Don’t be afraid to make a shade really dark.
    2. Avoid creating a shadow in the direction of the light source.
      • This should be a no-brainer, but a lot of artists make the mistake of making the shade and shadow of the subject be in opposite directions. Always pay attention to where the light is and don’t shade where it hits.
    3. Avoid not having a neutral tone.
      • A drawing is not just made by light and dark shades. There’s a neutral tone between the lightest part of your drawing and the darkest part. You can consider this the gray area, the bridge between your light and dark tones.

    Try to Understand the Light Source

    When in doubt, always try to understand the light source. When I started as an artist, I really had no idea what was going on when it came to shading. But as soon as I learned how light works, suddenly my eyes were opened and I was no longer shading by the vibes.

    Think of it this way, there is a line going straight from the light source to your object. Whatever that line hits, that’s where the light is.

    Where it doesn’t hit, that’s where the shade is.

    The bigger the light source, the more lines are gonna come out and hit your object. The strength of the light will depend on the size of your light source. The bigger, the stronger; the smaller the weaker.

    A weak light source will create a strong shadow (darker shade), a strong light source will create a weak shadow (lighter shade).

    As I’ve mentioned earlier, a drawing can have multiple light source. As intimidating as that sounds, it’s quite simple.

    Again, ask yourself, where is the light hitting? Or in this case, where are the lights hitting?

    If the light source is present on both the right and left sides of your drawing, then the light will be on both the right and left sides of your object, and the shade will be in the middle.

    If the light source is everywhere, then there will be little to no shade.

    Understanding and Using Highlights

    Now that you’ve gotten the hang of light sources, time to understand and use highlights!

    Highlights are just as vital to an art piece as shades and shadow’s are. They’re the final piece to what makes your art really pop.

    Highlights are the lightest part of your drawing. Once you’re done shading and adding texture to your drawing, you can start adding highlights. This is done by erasing a small part of the edge of your drawing where the light hits.

    Some artists do it the other way around where they identify where the highlight is first and leave it blank. Personally, I prefer to shade first and then add highlights second, but to each their own.

    If you wanna know what other tools there are for highlights, you can watch this video:

    Good Things to Draw for Shading Practice

    You’ve made it this far. You now have a basic grasp of lighting and shading, but you can never truly understand a concept until you’ve applied them. So here are a few different things you can practice shading on!

     Coffee Mug

    A coffee mug is a great subject to practice your shading on. It’s not too simplistic like a circle and it’s also not overly complicated like a human face. It’s simply a coffee mug.

    You can try drawing the mug from different angles or placing the light source in different places to see how it interacts with the mug. Try to shade using stippling and scribbling.


    Learn how to shade with an apple a day! An apple is a great subject to shade on. It’s quite simple to draw, unless you wanna be different and draw an apple core instead. Either way, they’re the perfect practice tool.

    You can also work on highlights and lighting with this as apples usually have this glistening sheen on them. Try to shade using contour and circulism.

    3D Box

    Lastly, try shading on a 3D box. A 3D box may seem like a simple subject, but with its hard edges and multicorners, it’s actually the perfect shape to practice your shading on! It can also help you with understanding shadow shapes, light, and neutral tones. Remember, neutral tones are the gray area between light and shade. Try to shade using hatching and cross-hatching.

    Why is Drawing so hard?

    Why is drawing so hard? It is, but that’s what’s so fun about it!

    I know it’s difficult at first, but try to remember no artist is born with a pencil in their hand, having already drawn a perfectly well-shaded portrait. An artist is born from years of hard work and practice done by a passionate and dedicated person.

    Shading can be difficult because you are trying to replicate how the light is hitting your chosen subject. If your shading is inaccurate your drawing, will look less readable and certainly less detailed. To better understand shading, think about where the light it is hitting, what are the brightest spots on your object and what are the darkest ones.

    And even when an artist reaches their “full potential”, drawing will still be difficult for them.  

    But when you really look at it, drawing isn’t actually as difficult as you make it seem. It’s just shapes and colors. What makes it difficult is when you constantly pressure it to be perfect, when truly, no art is and no art ever will be.

    When our brain has a concept, and we can’t immediately execute it on paper, we get frustrated. When there’s something we want to copy but can’t, we get mad.

    Drawing is hard because we make it hard. But the more we draw, the more we get better. And it may be frustrating at times, but eventually, you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come.

    Thanks for reading and hope this post has been helpful – see you in the next one!

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