Light and Shade: Making Your Sketch Look “Real”

Light and Shade: Making Your Sketch Look “Real”











“Lovely use of light,” you think, as you gaze upon a particularly atmospheric watercolour. “It almost seems to glow.”
What you’re looking at is not light, exactly, but the effect of light. You’re looking at shadows cast by light. What you might think is beautifully-depicted light is in fact nothing at all – if you so much as touch a page with water or colour from your brush, the glow will disappear. On the other hand, you can do all kinds of things with shadow to enhance the light on your page.

Getting light and shade right makes all the difference to a feeling of “being there”. You can slap down all kinds of strong colour with abandon, but it’s only when you put in the shadows that the object will suddenly look like you could reach in your hand and touch it.

In this article I will explain the mechanics of adding light and shade to your sketch. I will show you four scenes showing the effect of light, scenes such as ones you might encounter in your urban sketching travels.

You’ll see:

– Buildings in afternoon sun (a row of houses, their façades cast into shadow)
– Light through glassware (a lunch on a sunny terrace)
– Objects in soft light (ceramic jars indoors)
– Shiny or wet objects (people on a beach soaking up the sun)

All four sketches were drawn directly from life, and I’m going to present each to you in three ways.

First, I show the sketch as it was made on location, in full colour. Then I show you the same scenes broken down into their bare outlines, just to show you how simple and flat they looked before I added the effects of light, to convince you that there is nothing unobtainable when it comes to the structure of a drawing. Lastly, I show you how the sketch looks with the effect of pure light added, using just one colour. I have used indigo by Schmincke, but you can use any shade of blue or blue-grey, such as ultramarine, Payne’s grey, Prussian blue, or you can choose from lots of others. Experiment with a few.

I will show you how to identify the direction of light as it pertains to your sketch; when to use neat black ink; how to convey strong sunlight and more diffuse light; how to achieve that all-important glow; and of course leaving areas pure white to lend your sketch a light touch.

To achieve really good light and shade effects, you need three things: an accurate drawing (any type of line will do, as long as the shapes are strong), an understanding of the direction(s) and intensity of light and a knowledge of how to apply your shadow colours in layers. Add patience and you’re all set.

I will also provide a download of the outline so that you can practice light and shade effects at home. You can use colouring pencils on regular printing paper to great effect, or print it onto heavier paper and you’ll be able to add watercolour.

Pedralva, Portugal, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Pedralva, Portugal

Lunch on the terrace, Sagres, Portugal, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Lunch on the Terrace, Sagres, Portugal

Ceramics in Nice, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Ceramic containers, Nice

Beach at Nice, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Beach bodies in Nice, France

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4 Comments

  1. Sharon Stover

    September 18, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    I’d like to participate but haven’t used these types of currency before so need a bit of advise on how to get started so I can purchase premium content. Thanks!

    • Marcel Cure

      September 18, 2018 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Sharon,
      Of course! When you select ‘Pay 4’, you will be asked to fund a “Web Wallet” with 20 tokens (right now that’s about $4). You can pay for these using your credit card or with PayPal. These tokens sit on your device and 4 of them will be used to access the article and the 16 remaining tokens can be used to access other articles at some other time. The next time you select ‘Pay 4’ to see a different article, those 4 tokens will be automatically deducted from your balance so that the article will appear immediately. The nice thing about using this system is that there are no transaction charges for these small amounts. You will have perpetual access to the articles you have paid for from your device (phone, tablet or PC).
      Let us know how it works out for you please.
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  2. Steven Wayne

    April 5, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    That was a good article. I do have trouble leaving some white as I tend to fill everything between the lines.

    Have you considered putting something on your Patreon page, it’s looking a bit bare at the moment.

    • Róisín Curé

      April 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

      Hi Steven, we prefer to keep all our Patreon content on our own website, so that we can maintain ownership of it. Keep those whites clear! It will become a habit and will lead to greater sensitivity in your sketches.

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