Carving out the Light (and why "Shading" is deceiving)

Jeremy Lipking


In all the research I’ve done of many artists from across the industries, there is one interesting coincidence when it comes to their process. It’s fairly logical and most likely done subconsciously, though I will put it in tangible terms in this post.

When I first started with art, a lot of tutorials would mention you need to focus on “shading”. Shading was this magical process that promises you a three dimensional image, which is often sold as making your artwork “realistic”. Shading, as implied in the name, is simply adding the shadows on an object. By the nature of adding the shadows, what isn’t in the shadows are naturally lit.

Jeremy Mann

It took years before I realized there is a fundamental problem with this approach. It’s not so much the actual process that’s the problem but it’s the way it teaches people how to think about light.

For our eyes to be able to see anything, light must be present. Science classes from all levels would have probably taught you that vision occurs when light reflects off of objects and into our eyes. In an environment void of light, it would just be pure darkness. Darkness is the true neutral state, the absence of light as if it’s a blank canvas with nothing happening.

David Kassan

As I might have hinted already, the logical approach is actually the direct opposite of focusing on shades. Imagine your artwork as if it started off in darkness and you’re painting the light. It might seem weird given that a canvas, in the traditional sense, starts off as blank white. It further justifies why master fine artists tends to put a tone of burnt sienna or other neutral wash over the canvas to cover up the white.

Let me be clear that I am not saying you shouldn’t be painting the shadows. Chances are, you are going to be adjusting the colours of every part of your painting during the process, which will include the shades. I am saying that it’s more intuitive to set your mentality based on what’s being ADDED to the scene (adding light to darkness). If there’s a way to ensure your artwork feels lit, it is important to first and foremost focus on the light and what it does to a scene.

David Kassan


Traditional paintings have something digital paintings never do; texture of the physical paint. There is a very common technique to paint light which has been lost in the digital age. Generally, you’ll find that fine artists would have much thicker paint on the lit areas than the shades. In fact, you might find many paintings which leave the shades in a very thin wash. The reason is quite simply it allows for the thick paint to pop out just like how light causes an object to pop out. This is the most apparent case where an artist is painting based on ADDITION; to literally have more paint present to emulate the intensity of light. Would it make any sense if the shades were heavily textured instead?

Just to clarify (as with every other blog), I am not in the realm of telling people how to think. It is simply a recommendation of what seems to work for many artists over hundreds of years. For myself, colours made sense when I started to carve out what’s being lit rather than carve out what’s not being lit. 

Justin Sweet

Shading felt like a process of adding paint to what is logically a case of subtraction in reality. I feel it should be something you do after you've established and resolved the lights. When you do that, the shadows have a point of reference to the lights, giving you a better perception on just how dark the shadows need to be. In a lot of cases, you might not even need to do much in the shadows at all! If you've noticed some of the images I've attached, you might find that the shadows tend to be left rough just as it's required.

If you have a mind that must wrap around the rational like I do, perhaps this approach might suit you better!

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