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7 Common Shading Mistakes and How to Fix Them

April 18, 2010

how to shade a pencil drawingI seem to get more e-mails from people wanting to know about shading than I do anything else. Instead of talking about tips and how to shade, I thought we’d take a look at some of the common mistakes people make when shading their pencil drawings.

To the left is a well-shaded sphere. The texture is smooth and even, there is a gradual transition between values, and there is a range of lights and darks. This is what we’re aiming for! 

Here are some problems we might face along the way:


1. Messy Shading

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: This shading is hurried and uneven. We can clearly see the pencil lines, and this takes away from any illusion of depth we might create with our values. This mistake is due to either rushing or a lack of pencil control.

I often see this when the artist hasn’t spent as much time shading areas that aren’t “important.” For example, the eyes are shaded beautifully, but the rest of the face and/or torso have been rushed.

The solution: It’s important to realize that smooth, realistic shading takes time, and that each part of the drawing is as important as the rest.

If your pencil lines are visible because you find it difficult to control the presure of the pencil, practice is the answer! Just practice shading smooth, even lines with no spaces between them, always keeping the same pressure on the pencil. When you can do this, practice making value scales that show an even transition between light and dark.


2. Abrupt Transitions

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: In this sphere, we can clearly see a line that defines the different values.While some shiny or metallic surfaces have very separate values, most objects show a smooth gradation between light and dark.

The solution: To fix this problem, you need to practice building values in gradual layers. It’s not a just matter of pressing harder when you start shading the dark areas, it’s more of a slow process where each layer adds another bit of graphite. As the layers slowly build up, you get a gradual transition from light to dark. You will have to press slightly harder for the darker areas, and it’s important to learn how to gradually exert more pressure, but if you find yourself pressing very hard, you’re better off switching to a softer pencil.


3. Timid Shading

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: Here we see nice, smooth shading and a gradual transition from light to dark, but the entire  drawing is far too light! This is probably the most common mistake made by new artists. Often this is a result of being too timid to make bold shadows. The result is a very washed out, flat looking drawing.

The solution: Don’t be afraid of your drawing, and especially don’t be afraid of ruining your work! Remember that if you’ve drawn it once, you’ve drawn it again, so go ahead and try some dark, deep shadows. By creating dark shadows, you create more depth and dimension in your drawings. It’s also important to remember that the only areas that should be as white as your paper are the small highlights where light actually hits your subject. Everything else should be shaded at least lightly.


4. Grey Shading

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: This is very similar to the previous mistake, but here we have an entire sphere shaded in midtones. We are missing a highlight and the shadows. This also makes for a very flat drawing, not to mention it makes your work look very dull and drab.

The solution: Every element of your drawing, whether it’s skin, hair, clothing, a cup, or some other object, should have a highlight, shadows and a range of midtones. To get a highlight, either avoiding applying any graphite to the area, or use a kneaded eraser to lift out any pencil marks already there. For shadows, get a softer pencil like a 2B or a 4B and add some darker values.


5. Outlines

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: This sphere is shaded perfectly, but do you get a sense of depth or volume from it? No. That’s because of the outline. A line is two-dimensional, it is flat and sits on the surface of the paper. Anytime you outline your drawings, you’re bringing all the attention to the paper’s surface, essentially nullifying your shading. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for lines, but a realistically rendered drawing is not it!

The solution: It’s unrealistic to expect to do a drawing without any use of line. The trick is learning to do it in a way that isn’t distracting. Make sure your outlines are very light and easy to erase. Use either a very hard or very soft pencil, and don’t press hard. If a tiny bit of your line is left over, it’s probably fine, but the heavier it is, the more it will take away from your shading.


6. Shading in Different Directions

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix them

 The problem: This is a more subtle mistake than some of the others, but if we look closely, we can see that although the shading itself is smooth, there is a “patchwork” feel to this sphere. This is because the shading was done in all different directions: first horizontal, then vertical, then diagonal. This takes away from the unity of the object’s surface and makes the shading look messy even though we can’t see the individual pencil strokes.

The solution: Try to keep your shading going in the same direction. If you absolutely must change directions (and sometimes you have to!) lessen the pressure on your pencil, change directions and keep shading, overlapping the marks you made in the other direction. This will help create a smooth transition and disguise the change. Blending with a tortillon can also help with this.


7. Improper Tools

common pencil shading mistakes and how to fix themThe problem: If you’re tried all these tips and still your shading isn’t quite right, take a look at your tools. Your shading can only be as good as what you’re working with. With a regular HB pencil, for example, you will never get the rich shadows that you need. You can press as hard as you want, but it just won’t go that dark! Paper is another thing to consider. Regular computer paper is very flat, and doesn’t have the texture to take the amount of graphite needed to properly shade.

The solution: A decent sketchbook and a range of pencils won’t cost much, but will go a long way towards improving the quality of your pencil drawings.


Can’t get enough on pencil shading? Check out these articles:

How to Shade your Pencil Drawings

Shading a Sphere – Tutorial

15 Tips for Realistic Shading


From → Drawing

  1. sam permalink

    hey thanks for this i have a lot of trouble shading want to practice it a bit more so thanks for the tips 🙂

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