Draw Light

Pencil Drawing - Tutorial - Draw Light.

Understanding of the dimensions of light is critical to knowing how to draw light. Here we will be reviewing how the tonal range (from light to dark) is influenced by a number of factors. Something the artist can take advantage of to emphasize their perceptions of what they wish to portray.


By nature the pencil studies have a great potential for detail and contrast. The deeper the tonal range, the greater is the contrast and potential detail.

On the other hand, studies that have a more subtle tonal range can offer the artist a completely different set of parameters to work with. Where the obvious is subdued, whereby opening doors to suggestion and interpretation.

If we where discussing how to add shadows to a coloured study the methodology would be considerably different. With a mix of contrasting colours the tonal range is comparatively easy to achieve.

However, to achieve a good result the pencil artist has only black or white, and everything between to work with.

Consequently the pencil artist needs to be more selective when choosing the subject matter.
If definition and form is important then the following should be considered:

  • It should have good contrast in tone from light to dark.
  • Contrast in texture from rough to smooth is as important.
  • Lastly, it should have good potential for detail.

All of which are dependant on a good knowledge of lighting and how to draw light.

Phases of Light

Light is a constant in both coloured and black and white studies. However, because of the lack of colour the pencil artist has to add a little extra to get better definition.

As a rule light travels in a straight line. If the source of light is on the left of an object, the shadow will be on the right. In most cases this is true, and that is the way it should be drawn.

However, not all light emitted from the light source will reach the object.

As it travels through the environment some of the light is 'adsorbed'. As more and more light is absorbed by the environment it eventually fades out completely.

But more on that later!

Let's first look at that main body of light.

shadow-01 • The first image on the right is a drawing of a typical shaded ball.
Where we will brake down the different phases of light as it crosses the ball from light to dark.

shadow-02 • The first area of the ball to be most affected by the light is referred to as True Light. This is where the object shows its natural colour before it gradually fades into the next phase of light. It may vary in size depending on the strength of the source of light and the colour of the object.

shadow-01 • Within the True Light area the High Light is sometimes visible. This applies to objects that have smooth or glossy surface. A typical example frequently used is the high light added to the eye in portraiture. It is a reflection of a single or multiple source of light

shadow-01 • The next phase is referred to as Fading Light. This is probably the most important phase for the pencil artist. For it is here the greater majority of a drawing's shading is done.

shadow-01 • The last phase is known as Night Light. This is the darkest phase as little to no light reaches it.

shadow-01 • Depending on the conditions Reflected Light usually appears beyond the night light. This is light that is either reflected off the surface it is standing on or off an adjoining surface. A typical example you should look out for is of someone being photographed in daylight wearing a white shirt. Where the underside of the chin is lightened by the reflected light.
shadow-01 • Finally the Shadow cast on the adjoining surface. This too is subject to the surrounding conditions the affect it's shape and depth

shadow-01 • In addition to the light falling on the object, it may also pick-up Reflections of adjoining objects. Practically if it's surface is smooth or glossy. Besides it being lighter or darker, it could have an irregular shape or even patterns on it.

That reminds me of what it would take to draw a shop front window. First there is the display in the window, which is probably well lit with spotlights. Then there is the shop front and signage on the glass. Next is the reflection of the pavement and street on the glass. Some of which is in shadow and leave only a ghostly image on the glass. But then there is that part of the reflection that is in daylight and reflects every detail. Thereby totally obliterating the display within the window.


Before we move on, I must draw your attention to, what is Refracted light? Not to be confused with Reflected light.

Refraction of light is the phenomenon of bending of a light wave as it passes from medium to another.

For example, as light passes through air into a more denser material such as water, glass and the like. As it does so in appears to change in direction due to a change in its speed.



Graphite Tonal Range

To cover the full tonal range all the grades of graphite should be included.

The grades range from a hard (H) to soft (B). Preceding the H or B is a number. The higher the number harder or softer is the graphite with the HB being the midway. For example ranging from hard to soft the grades would read: 4H - 3H - 2H - H - HB - B - 2B - 3B etc. However, it is not necessary to use the full range of grades.

Over time I have whittled then down to 6H - 4H - 2H - H - HB - B - 2B - 4B and 6B.

Above we looked at the phases of light, reflections and the shadow. Now we will be looking at how the different grades of graphite fix into the Tonal Range. Furthermore, we will be looking at how under different conditions the tonal range will change. Affecting the way we draw shadows.

shadow ball
shadow ball strip

We start with a shaded object that has a full tonal range from light to dark. To be able to evaluate the tonal range a strip is removed and laid out on a flat surface.

shadow ball

Regular Tonal Curve

  • Above is a Regular Tonal Range with a typical gradient from light to dark. Here you can see the full range of graphite from 6H to 6B.

shadow ball

Regular Tonal Curve

  • Probably the greater majority of shading in pencil drawings happens within this Light Tonal Range. Starting with 6H it extends to HB with a touch of B.

    If you where doing a drawing with a number of coloured objects, this tonal range would be used for the lighter coloured objects.

    For example the coloured balls on a snooker table. Barring the glossy high light the ball above would most likely be the yellow ball, and the ball below would be the green ball.

shadow ball

Regular Dark Tonal Range

  • Above, is a Regular Dark Tonal Range beginning at 4H following through to 2B and a little more. It would be suitable for drawing darker objects within a multi-coloured topic.

    But to do a complete drawing in this tonal range would be ill advised. That is, unless it has some high lighted areas to improve the contrast. As the High Tonal Range below.

shadow high

Low End Tonal Range

  • A low End Tonal Range is where the greatest change in tone comes at the low end. As a result the majority of the object or the drawing is drawn with the softer grades of graphite.

    In this example the tonal curve levels out at HB. Making HB the mid range grade. To lighten the curve you simply make it level out at a harder grade such as 2H.

    This type of tonal range is ideal for drawing studies or objects that are dark in colour. For example that black limousine, a black leather jacket or a portrait of someone with black skin. The trick is to determine what the mid range tone should be and adjust accordingly.

    This tonal range is also ideal for drawing studies that have poor lighting. For example that candle lit dinner.

shadow low

High End Tonal Range

  • In contrast the High End Tonal Range has the greater escalation of tone at the high end of the scale. This is a typical tonal range for objects that are well lit and usually within a dull or dark environment. Such as, someone in the spotlight on stage.

shadow reflect

Reflected Tonal Range

  • Above we have a typical Reflected Tonal Range . It starts with a regular gradient from light to dark then a fall off as the reflection comes into play. The depth of the reflected light will vary depending on its strength.

    For portraits, nudes and still-life studies this is probably the ideal tonal range to use. The reflected light on the 'shadow side' of an object helps to create definition of its form.

It goes without saying that every artist will have his or her own methods of drawing. As a result the intensity or 'blackness' of any one grade of graphite will differ from one artist to another. It may not be by much, but literally, in the over all picture it will make a difference.

A suggestion is to make your own graphite tonal range so you can compare. Don't rush through it, take your time. Do it as if it is going to be your next masterpiece. After all, it must reflect the way you would normally draw.

"Strength is found by one's failures not successes."

Light Source

The pencil artist's understanding the parameters of lighting is crucial to creating a successful pencil drawing. This includes both natural and artificial lighting.


When we talk of natural light, the first that comes to mind is sunlight. And rightly so! It is probably the ideal lighting for the greater majority of studies. Particularly, suitable for those large panoramic studies such as landscape, wildlife and the like.

For more focused studies, sunlight offers the artist the full tonal range to work with. Which intern gives them ample opportunities to create a wide range of contrasting textures. Reflected or defused light is a factor not to be ignored. It can help to add definition to topics that portray form and shape.

Then with the change of day to when the shadows lengthen new prospects come into play. Where the patterns cast by the actual shadows can be use to create some interesting compositions.

Daylight Shade

Daylight shade is ideal lighting for portrait type studies. With the elimination of the glare of direct sunlight, it allows the artist to include those soft textures at the low end of the tonal range.

Unusual Lighting

These are drawings that use out of the ordinary type of lighting to emphasis the meaning or 'drama' of the study. For example, a drawing of a candle lit portrait, or the reflection of the moon on the water. Or, what about someone with a wide brim hat standing under a streetlight.


Generally, I avoid using subject matter that has been taken with a flashlight. At a short distance the intense light tends be burn up crucial lines of definition and detail. Thereby, leaving the artist with a list of suspicious possibilities and uncertain options.


These studies are usually of a subject or form within a dark environment and lit by one or two focused spotlights. They are typically minimal where the profile line of a form figure or face becomes the focal point.

Tip when Drawing Profiles:


Here we have an example of a hand under spotlight. The primary light source is above and beyond the hand, with some reflected light on the underside of the hand.

The dark background is shaded with 2B and above. Whereas, the lighter portions of the upper hand had been drawn with 2H grade of graphite.

Choosing the correct grade of graphite is vital when drawing the dividing profile line between the dark background and the form. Because hard grade will give you a crisp line the temptation is to use that.

This will cause problem then it comes to applying the dark background, as it will prevent the softer grade upper layer from binding to the paper. As a result, the bold line from the form to the dark background become fuzzy.

The best solution would be to rather use a sharp soft grade to draw that dividing profile line. There after apply the adjoining dark background. Once that is done you could use an HB grade to enhance the edge.

Studio Lighting

What can I say about studio lighting? Other than daylight it is probably the next best thing. With the right equipment you can simulate practically any mood needed. But just one thing! Remember the black and white study needs contracts in the tonal range and in textures.

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