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3 Secrets that will change your artwork forever!


by Darrel Tank

Light is how we develop our perception of what we see–the way light bounces off of a surface, illuminating a person’s features is the way we perceive the shape and contour of a face, or the folds in clothing. It isn’t just what the light shines on, or how it reflects off of a surface, that shows us detail and reveals information. It’s also where the light doesn’t shine that helps us determine the depth and dimension of our subject, because of the way it contrasts with the areas that are receiving light. The range of value created between the darkest and lightest areas helps us in assessing the angle, distance, and curve of an object.

You can’t just add additional contrast and shadow without regard to the direction of your lighting source. If you fake it, your brain will know that there is something wrong, because it creates a conflict or contradiction with reality. Even though the flash that we use when taking photographs has revolutionized the opportunity to take pictures where it was previously very difficult or even impossible, it also creates many problems for artists who attempt to use photos as a reference. The flash can flatten your images by creating harsh and completely unnatural shadows that don’t conform at all to the natural contours of your subject. It also creates lightened areas and highlights where they would never have existed under natural lighting conditions. This is because of the way the flash horizontally projects light into areas and recesses that it would never naturally go.

The concept of light is probably one of the most important to understand if we are to add dimension and curve to our pencil drawings. There are three basic rules of light, which will provide the depth, contour, dimension, and detail that can provide a lifelike quality and character to your artwork.

Any object that moves to where there is less light gets darker.

In order to add depth to a drawing, every artist needs a basic understanding of this rule. Any facial feature, line, or shape  that is drawn in a place where there would be less light should naturally increase in value and get darker. By increasing all of your individual values and keeping them all relative to each other, as they go to where there is less and less light, you will increase the depth and dimension in your drawings. When creating your darker values to accomplish this, remember that there is a limit to the amount of pressure that should be applied when using your pencils. You always want to allow for the removal of the graphite, if needed. So if you reach the pressure limit with one pencil but you still need more value, move up to the next pencil in the sequence to create the darker value. Never use more value that you need, so that you will have a little value in reserve when you need to show where there is the least amount of light.

Any object that moves to where there is more light gets lighter.

For example, as you come to the apex of a curve there will most often be more light. Therefore all of the individual values in your drawing will gradually decrease in value as they come closer to the light. This will greatly enhance the feeling of curve, contour, and dimension in a drawing and help give it the illusion that it is three dimensional. Demonstrating contour and curve is such a benefit to your drawing that you never want to miss the opportunity to include it. This leads to the next rule.

Any portion of your drawing that remains the same value will appear flat.

It is very important to avoid having any part of your drawing appear flat, especially if it is a portrait. There isn’t anything flat in the human form, so I strongly suggest that you always show a range of value as you build your gradations, even in the smallest spaces where you may not think it matters. Learn to discern even the slightest variation in value, whether it is in your reference or as you are developing your drawing.

There will always be places where there is just not enough visual information to satisfy your mind and what it is searching for, but if you understand the principles and follow the rules, it will be easier to either fill in for the lack of information or clarify and enhance what you do see.

My hope is that you will learn these three rules of light, which will allow you to add depth and contour to your drawings, even when you can’t see it in the photo reference you have or in the subject you are drawing from. Whether you are experienced or a complete beginner, you can learn and apply these three simple rules that will add a striking and realistic illusion of 3D to your drawings.

I hope this sheds some light on the subject!

Darrel Tank is an accomplished illustrator and teacher. His 5-Pencil Method has helped thousands of artists to create lifelike graphite pencil drawings. For more of Darrel's work and for information on the 5-Pencil Method, visit


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