I frequently find myself sketching scenes that have dark lighting, but I'm never quite sure how to go about shading the subjects of the drawing when it's supposed to look dark, especially things like hair and clothing, things that are supposed to be light colored (say, snow or white sheets) and faces- it always looks quite messy.
For example, if I'm drawing two people in an unlit hallway, I will end up just shading along their outlines and putting random shadows where I think they "look right," such as along the side of the face, on the front of the shirt and wherever on the pants.
How can I realistically shade sketches of dark scenes?


3 Answers 3


Remember that white only looks white when there is 'white' light (light containing a wide range of wavelengths, I won't go into details here) that it can reflect. Even snow can look dark.

For realistic shading, you have to know what the subject you are drawing, looks like. So, find examples. Look at yourself in a mirror when it's dark outside, use a lamp to create shadows the way you want them in your drawing, pay attention to the shapes. Draw what you see. Of course, you can also use images from the internet, but then you can't see the changes in the shapes of the shadows when you tilt your head a bit more.

In short: draw what you see. With practise, you can 'see' those things in your imagination and you don't need a reference image for everything you want to draw.


In practice, there are two main approaches to drawing light with a permanent medium.

Negative Light. This is most likely what you're trying to do, because the supplies are much more available. For dark scenes, this is the hard road. Here, you are starting from a white ground, typically the color of the paper. This means you want the whitest, brightest page you can find, as this gives you access to the widest range of contrast available. In negative light, you are drawing darkness. You are, layer by layer, blotting out the white of the page, and replacing it with variations, shades, tints, tones, and hues. Wherever you want more light, simply let more page through by touching that point less. If you want a light source to seem brighter, subtly and evenly darken everything around it. It's all about contrast. The light is negative space in this approach.

The negative light method demands, above all, restraint. The ability to look at your subject, (before you or in your mind) and color each point only to the darkness it must be. Going too far sucks the life out of the page, making the light harsh and stiff to the eye, while not going far enough leaves the projection faded and washed out, like some faint dream. The darker the scene becomes, the harder the work will be. To draw a true, void-like black, you'll need colored pencils which can easily layer or blend together. A true black makes a good base, and additional blended layers of a navy blue and a tonally equal brown will give it a sense of depth without adding any appreciable light. A second layer of true black over this blend will darken it further and blot out any remaining ground from the tooth which may have escaped your mark three times already. Because getting so dark in this method requires so much effort, it can be very difficult to remain sensitive to your light, making it easy to accidentally go too far.

Positive Light. This is the shortcut, in an opaque permanent medium, to drawing very dark scenes. Note that this technique requires really strong, high-pigment, opaque colored pencils. Some wax pencils simply lack the opacity to do this. Start from a black ground, most likely black paper. If you work in a paper with a special tooth or weight, it can be hard to find this material. You may need to carefully dye a page black if you are dead-set on it. Start with the brightest opaque colored pencil relevant to the image, and work your way down to black from there. Having a very large palette is an asset here. The brightest color in each hue is your maximum upper limit for light in these works. Here, you are actively adding the light to the page, building the image from the reflections and refraction of your light sources. The darkness is negative space, it is truly the background.

This method requires a very gentle touch, subtlety is key. This method allows one to very carefully sculpt shadows in the dimmest darkness, in ways which are only vaguely susceptible to the human eye. We often don't notice when we are in the dark, but we often do see far more than absolute darkness, it's just that our minds ignore and generalize most of it. Even if we don't think about what we see though, we still see it, and it still has subconscious value to us. This method gives the artist the easiest access to taking advantage of true expressive darkness through even the most delicate of marks.


You will realize that even white objects and clothes under dark lighting appear greyish-white which gives you an advantage. To shade dark scenes perfectly ,you will need to have a variety of pencils which are of different darkness and hardness. (H pencils are hard and they leave less graphite on the paper. This means that they are lighter. B pencils are softer and leave more graphite on the paper, meaning they are darker[as stated in google]) You can use the 6B-12B pencils for backgrounds and walls, and HB pencil for most of the art work. For the clothing you can use 2H-6H pencils which are very light to create some kind of contrast which is what you need. Your shadows however should be a little darker than the background otherwise they will not be visible. The path as well should either be darker or lighter than the side walls. You can opt to make the sky and the pathway darker and then the side walls lighter or vice versa to create contrast.

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