Art Tutorial: Light and shadow on a face

bland-faceBland. That’s how I would describe this face. I obvouiusly drew it like that on purpose to make a point. But without really changing the expression of the character, I can easily make it more interesting to look at, by adding some dramatic shadows.

downlit-face1: Downlit

The safest way to apply shadow, is under all the features of the face that extrude – The chin, the nose, the eyebrows (and in this case, the hair).

Effect: If applied lightly, like shown here, not much. But it DOES make the drawing quicker to read, as the main features stand out.

Pitfalls: Shading under eyes and chinbones can make characters look very old/bony.

uplit-face2: Uplit

Oooh, spooky! Who hasn’t held a flashlight under their chin to look like this?

Effect: Dramatic, fearful, scary.

Pitfalls: That shadow on the upper lip could easily look like a moustache. Handle with care.

backlit-face3: Backlit

Another great dramatic shading technique, allowing you to hide facial details = less to draw!

Effect: Makes the character look menacing and/or makes the reader uneasy, because the expression is unreadable.

Pitfalls: Too much black, and you can’t recognize the character. Too little, and it will look like a smear right down the middle of the face.

sidelit-face4: Sidelit

One of the most used ways of shading is the light from one side. It also helps reader navigation, like if you cut between two characters talking – one would be lit from the left, the other from the right.

Effect: I guess you could go Freudian, and imply split personality, but… In reality, it just looks cool.

Pitfalls: Too sharp lines between the light and dark side will make it look like the person put on half a cowl. Put some dark areas on the light side of the face and blend the lines: Problem solved.

double-lit-face5: Double-lit

Almost the same as above, only with a second light source, to make the face seem three-dimensional and add to the atmosphere.

Effect: Makes it look like you are the best artist in the world! Seriously!

Pitfalls: It’s tricky to tackle both light sources at once, so draw the primary shadow first and then apply the secondary light source in highlights after the fact. Here I added a little more dark to widen the distance between the light sources. It’s also a good idea to make one highlight sharp and the lines on the other more fuzzy.

Homework assignment: Print out a bunch of copies of the shadowless, bland face and test your newly achieved skills!

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14 Responses to “Art Tutorial: Light and shadow on a face”

  1. rommel Fernandez April 1, 2014 at 7:48 am #

    Great post to quickly reference !

    • rommel Fernandez April 12, 2014 at 6:14 am #

      How about making a similar post for the body?

  2. rommel Fernandez May 7, 2014 at 7:26 am #

    yes I agree., adding consistent shadows through out an entire page is something I am struggling with big time. Thanks for all your tips Palle really appreciate it and helps tremendously.

  3. Piotr October 9, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    great article! Thanks a lot!

  4. cece November 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    thanks you helped me a lot

  5. cece November 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    it helped me with my water works project im doing on art class so again thanks alot

  6. Dykeisha P.Hill February 16, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

    This is what i needed. Now my shading will be better.

  7. Dipankar September 26, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    Can i make the script of the first act first and start drawing actual comic pages and after that write act 2 and draw.. Similarly with act3

    • Palle Schmidt October 13, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

      Hey Dipankar,

      I always recommend you do an entire script – beginning, middle, end – before you start drawing. Especially if you’re new to the medium. I understand your eagerness to start drawing, but having a script or at least a detailed outline to work from increases your chances of finishing with like 600%! If you must, do a few random pages just to see and feel what it will look like, then go back and write it out.


  8. Britt Green December 21, 2015 at 4:56 am #

    Simple, clear, and concise. I appreciate how you explained the appearance of light and shadow on the human face. This has helped me very much.

  9. Diego Perini October 13, 2016 at 3:04 am #

    Great work! Thanks!

  10. Eline September 13, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    This really helped me, thank you!

    • Palle Schmidt September 18, 2017 at 10:46 am #

      You’re welcome, Eline! Thanks for commentining!

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