Sketching light and shadows

Learn how to apply what we learned about shapes in the previous lesson to creating more energetic and moody drawings.


By focusing not only on the shapes that make up the structure of our subject, but also the shapes created by light and shadow.

Our goal with this lesson is to better understand how focusing on light and shadow can add mood, drama, and interest to your drawings. It all starts with understanding a few simple concepts about light.

A quick gesture drawing by E. Michael Mitchell. Notice how he uses shadows and light to build up the structure of the model.

Before we get into more specifics about drawing light and shadow. I want to prevent you from making the same mistakes, I’ve made, as well as many others have made.

This mistake is to TIGHTEN UP.

I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times with my students. After spending a few days in a workshop drawing great loose drawings using the blind and contour line exercises – as soon as they move on to drawing light and shadow, they’ll tighten up. Whether it's a false perception that drawing light and shadow is “hard” or not realizing this basic truth:

Sketching shadows and light is just as much about action and motion as it is shapes and form.


Drawing subjects that are moving or still should be treated the same. If you’re drawing people walking by in public, chances are you’re going to be drawing fast and quick to capture the overall motion of the person before they're out of sight.

Sketch by Jon Gomez. Notice the energetic lines he used to capture the shadows and light that make up the form of this drawing.

This same “quick capture” drawing approach should be used even if you’re drawing still objects. It’s important to keep your pencil moving with quick intuitive strokes in response to what you see.

To get into the right mind frame for staying loose as we observe and draw more of our subject, it helps to run these words through your head as you’re drawing. Fast, sketchy, energetic, loose, chaos, swoopy, continuous, feeling.

It’s essential that you have an “I don’t care about this drawing,” mindset as you’re drawing. Having no concern as to what your final drawing will look like. No planning.


As we shift our attention from objects and structure to the light and shadows falling on them. Something exciting happens, when you start paying more attention to light as you draw, your drawings will start to have more atmosphere and mood in them.

But there are different types of light all around us. Each type of light dictates a different quality. A room lit completely with fluorescent lights (a boring office) will create subjects of no real interest and appear flat.

TIP: If you’re drawing in an environment like this, focus on drawing the interesting shapes that make up your subject.

It helps to determine what the actual light source is as you’re observing and sketching. Is it coming from a single source? Is it coming from multiple sources? Just taking into account what your light source is will help you observe better, taking it into account as you sketch.

I encourage you to sketch subjects under interesting lighting conditions. This may mean looking at your subject in interesting angles or it may mean sketching by candlelight or using a strong light coming from one direction. It may mean allowing strong shadows to fall across your subject which creates dominating shapes that hide certain details.

When you can, it helps when you deliberately change up your lighting conditions to create more interesting subjects to draw.

Setting up unusual lighting conditions, you can strengthen your observation skills so when you’re in real-world situations that happen by chance, you’ll be ready to understand the light and shadows around you

TIP: Copying old black and white photographs is a great way to train your mind to draw light and shadow. You’ll discover that single light sources, such as spotlights (Think of referencing old film noir movies).

Now, let’s get into some specific exercises you can do to bring your light and shadow observations into your drawings.

Remember, we don’t want to fall into making the same mistake most artists fall into when they start bringing light and shadow into their drawings. Which is to tighten up and completely ignore the action of our subjects. The best way to do this is with a strategy called mapping.


Light is different all around us. Sometimes it’s harsh creating strong contrasts by casting sharp shadows. Sometimes it’s subdued and soft. To get a better grasp of how to draw light in various moods you need to first learn how to see it’s patterns. Accomplished by a simple strategy called mapping.

Hands drawn by E. Michael Mitchell. Notice how the shadows seem like different countries on a map.

We’re going to break down all lights and all shadows we observe into shapes., as if they were different countries on a map. Assign a definite boundary to ever shape created by light and shadow.

Mapping is great because of its speed. Preventing us from tightening up our drawings.

Mapping is simple because you’re only creating a map with two parts. One part with the shapes created by light, the other part with shapes created by shadows.

Mapping is something you can do right away without learning a bunch of theory on a million different ways to shade.

At first, as you begin practicing mapping lights and shadows it helps to refer to observe subjects with strong contrasts.

The more you practice mapping, the more you’ll realize it’s broader applications for sketching. Mapping can be used in quick sketches as a sole approach all by itself. Or as a base for more comprehensive drawings.

The key is to stay loose and sketch fast. Never spending more than a few minutes on each drawing.

Below, I’ve included three essential exercises to help you capture light and shadow while staying loose and expressive.

You’ll be giving up control in exchange for mobility and speed. Details aren’t important here.


Gesture drawing is typically taught to capture just shapes and forms in motion. Generally used to capture the action of your subject in the quickest and most economical way.

However, gesture drawing is more interesting when you’re only looking at the shapes created by light and shadow. While drawing the forces, in and around, that make up your subject. Not just limiting yourself to its physical structure.

The drawings above are by Jon Gomez. Notice his heavy use of shadow and light to guide him in his gesture drawings.

Usually, this involved a type of scribble aimed at what your subject is doing and not what it is. This is especially effective in capturing things in motion. Use no more than one minute for each gesture drawing and keep your pencil moving the entire time. Only capturing the maps created by light and shadows.


Another way to quickly capture the maps created by light and shadow is with a continuous line drawing. It’s similar in spirit to the gesture but is done entirely in one continuous line. Remember, your goal is not to capture every little detail in your subject. You’ll want to record the interesting shapes (angles and curves) created by light and shadow in a spontaneous way.

A great example of a continuous line drawing by Jason Gathorne-Hardy.

Notice how the lines get heavier in the shadows.

The drawing of the flower and the tail of the betta are long continuous line drawings I drew.

Continuous line drawings aren’t contoured drawings. Feel free to roam in and out of what you’re observing. Exploring the action and energy of your subject – using just light and shadow. Follow the in’s and out’s of the contours, never lifting your pencil once.

Spend no longer than two minutes for each drawing. People, cars, the room you’re in, animals in motion, and plants all make great subjects for connected line drawings.


Fast burns are more of a personal challenge you can give yourself.

It’s where you sketch as much of what’s around you as fast as you can in five minutes or less.

Sketchbook drawing by James Jean. It probably took him longer than 5 minutes, but this is a great example of how to capture what's around you. Collect as much information as you can.

Drawing by Daniel Egneus. This is a great use of lines to communicate what's around him.

The rules for the burn sketches are simple.

Look in any direction and sketch what is in front of you for five minutes without stopping. Give no additional thought to composition, subject matter, details, or style.

This helps clear your mind of critical dialogue as you’re sketching. Keeping your drawings as intuitive and based on observation as much as possible. While exercising your eye-hand coordination.

The idea is to capture as much as you can within your field of vision. The more complicated, the more interesting your sketching will be. Combine both your gesture and continuous lines techniques while looking to the corners of a busy coffee shop, a cluttered kitchen, or a busy street. Trying to capture as much information as you can in less than five minutes.


  • I want you to walk away from this lesson not being intimidated by light and shadow. They're nothing more than simple shapes that can help you communicate motion and mood in your drawings.
  • It helps to observe light and shadow as countries on a map at first.
  • Quick gesture drawings are more interesting when you focus on drawing the shadows. The form will naturally appear when you do this.
  • The continuous line technique is perfect for exploring light and shadow while also keeping you away from tightening up.


  1. Spend 20 – 30 minutes practicing the gesture drawing exercise. Spending no more than one minute on each drawing. Make sure to draw from a scene you create or from the real world that has strong lights and shadows.
  2. Spend 20 – 30 minutes practicing the continuous line drawing exercise. Using only lines to carve out the form of your subject based on its light and shadows.
  3. Create 3 five minute burn sketches. Sketching from entire scenes of rooms or settings you're in. Using both the techniques you've developed in the gesture and continuous line exercises.