Draw Realistic, 3D Form With Shading

Shadow + Highlight = Form

Value Map

Value Map

There are no secrets to drawing three dimensional form. When looked at objectively, form is just areas of light and dark value (or highlight and shadow). To help you see how this works, and to help me explain the steps of this drawing to you, I made a “value map” and gray scale of this rumpled towel’s shadow and highlight areas.

Gray scale made up of the values of my towel drawing.Here’s the gray scale and the value numbers I’ll be referring too in the lesson.

Supplies Needed

Set up your own still life and draw from it as you follow along with the steps I recorded while working on my still life.

4B Pencil Paper Test

4B Pencil Paper Test

1. Choose which paper to use.

I chose a paper by making test swatch on a few different kinds until I found a slightly rough looking hatch that mimicked the towel’s texture.

Quick Line Drawing

Quick Line Drawing

2. Make a line drawing.

(It doesn’t have to be perfect.)

I just wanted to draw the most interesting part of the towel, so I measured the width and height of that part with my pencil, and marked those measurements on the paper. Then I made a loose line drawing within those measurements.

 Side of Pencil Hatching With Overhand Grip

Side of Pencil Hatching With Overhand Grip

With the side of the 4B pencil in an overhand grip and using light pressure, I drew the most obvious lines of the folds with quick strokes. After I was satisfied with them, I added more details, including the shapes of some of shadow areas.

 Darkest Shadows Added

Darkest Shadows Added

3. Add the darkest shadow shapes.
Using the side of the 4B pencil again, I hatched in the darkest shadow areas (6’s and 7’s on the gray scale.)

I darkened them into a value that was slightly lighter than they actually were on the towel so that I could easily change them later on. It’s always much easier to add graphite than it is to erase it, so I rarely hatch dark values to their full darkness until I’m sure they are placed and shaped correctly.

 Medium Dark Values Added

Medium Dark Values Added

4. Add the medium dark shadow shapes.

I added the medium dark shadows (3’s, 4’s, and 5’s) with the side of the 4B pencil. As in the last step, I made the values a little lighter than they really were.

I could draw the shapes of some of the shadow areas more easily than others because their edges were more clearly defined. The shadow edges with gradual transitions into the surrounding areas were the most difficult to see, and because I knew I would be re-visiting those areas in the later steps, I didn’t try to draw them perfectly at this stage.

Averaging Values – The terry cloth made the medium dark values hard to see because the tops of the tiny loops caught the light while the lower part of the cloth remained in shadow. In those spots, squinting my eyes “averaged” the values by mixing them, and then I drew this “averaged” value.

Add Highlights

Add Highlights

5. Add the highlight shapes.

I switched to the HB pencil to hatch in the highlight areas (1’s and 2’s.)

To keep the texture close to what was created by using the 4B pencil, I held the HB pencil in the same way, using the side of it to make the hatching.

I could have used the 4B pencil with a very light pressure to create the lighter values, but I was able to create a more realistic looking variation in texture by using the harder pencil. The softer 4B pencil’s lead would have left behind darker “notes” on the grain of the paper no matter how lightly I applied it, and the towel’s highlight areas didn’t have extremely dark notes in them.

 Revisit Darkest Shadows

Revisit Darkest Shadows

6. Revisit the darkest shadows.

I switched back to the 4B pencil and adjusted the darkest shadows (7’s) to their full values.

While I worked on darkening them, I corrected their shapes, too.

Some of the darkest shadows of this towel formed lines near the folds that were so dark I couldn’t see any of the towel’s texture in them at all. To help create those very intense black lines, I re-sharpened the 4B and used its tip in a writing grip to darken them. I avoided crushing the grain of the paper by going over the lines several times with medium pressure on the pencil.

 Revisit Medium Dark Shadows

Revisit Medium Dark Shadows

7. Re-visit the medium dark shadows.

Using the 4B pencil on its side again again, I hatched the medium dark shadows (5’s, 6’s, and 7’s) to their full values and reshaped their edges if they needed it.

Most of the dark shadow lines were hard edged and looked good enough as they were originally stroked in. A few of them needed to be softened though. (Look at the hard and soft edge close-up to see the difference.)

To soften those edges, I merged them into the surrounding values with gradations. I began in the darkest areas with the side of the 4B, and then switched to side of the HB for the lighter values. The HB also helped to match and blend textures.

Some areas needed to be darkened in an overall way too, so I hatched over them with the side of the HB pencil, including the parts I had originally created with the 4B pencil.
To re-shape some shadow and highlight shapes, I tapped-erased them with a kneaded eraser. When I lightened an area too much, I simply hatched it back until the value darkened again.

I continually compared the values to each other and to the towel as I drew them. While I was doing this, had a dialog going on in my mind that went something like this:

  • Is this area darker than the area next to it?
  • Does this edge gradate into the next area or does it end abruptly?
  • How close does this shape come to that edge?

These questions helped me focus on each area and adjust it by comparison.

 Close-Up Of Highlights

Close-Up Of Highlights

8. Final Touch-Up

I used the kneaded eraser to tap-erase some of the smaller highlight details (1’s, 2’s and some 3’s) that I’d missed, or that were smudged.

For instance, I added a highlight line around the edge of the top right fold, and I added more highlight detail to some of the folds in the middle of the towel.

 Final Touch-Up

Final Touch-Up

To finish, I darkened a few more shadow gradations and re-drew some of the shadow shapes.

Hard And Soft Edges

Hard And Soft Edges

Hard And Soft Edges

Hard Edge – ends abruptly at edge.

Soft Edge – transitions into the next value in a gradual way.


If you drag an eraser through texture you’ve carefully built with the side of the pencil, you’ll smudge it. Try ‘tap-erasing’ instead, and you’ll save all your good work! :)

Tap-erase – literally tap with a kneaded eraser to lighten a shadow or re-form a shape. You can shape the eraser to make textures while you’re doing this too. For this drawing, I pinched an end into a dull point to create a rough texture that blended with side of pencil hatching.

Set-Up A Still Life

Arrange the towel in a flat area with a strong light source coming from one side and slightly above. A table lamp works well if the the other lighting in the room isn’t too bright. Experiment with lowering the other lighting, by closing curtains and so forth, until you see clear shadows and highlights on and around the towel.

Supply List

I’m a Dick Blick affiliate, and when you buy art supplies from the links below I get some money. If you do that, thanks! I’ve been buying my supplies from them for over 30+ yrs., and yes it was hard to type that number.

Canson Classic Cream Drawing Pad
– An inexpensive general use paper with a good tooth for sketching practice.

Strathmore 400 Series Drawing Paper Pads
– This is a rougher textured paper than Canson that doesn’t allow fine detail, but it’s very tuff and takes a lot of abuse. Depending on the sketch, I use this paper or Canson. Strathmore would be a very good paper for this exercise. A lot of people don’t like it, but it’s inexpensive and might be worthwhile to try.

Derwent Graphic Set of 4 Soft Pencils – 6B, 4B, 2B, HB
– There are a few more pencils here than what you strictly need, but these are good ones. True to grade, sharpen well without breakage generally, and aren’t gritty at all.

Kum Long Point Pencil Sharpener
– Two holes. One sharpens the wood, and the other sharpens the lead. I think this keeps the lead from breaking less often, and you do get a very good long sharp point too. You get one extra set of blades in the back of the sharpener.

Faber-Castell Kneaded Eraser
– This is my favorite. Just squishy enough to roll around in your fingers. Tragically, they’re easily offended and run away at the slightest imagined insult, so get more than one. (They’re cheap.)

3 Responses to Draw Realistic, 3D Form With Shading

  1. pat says:

    thank you so very much for giving your free lessons.
    i am disabled and truly can not afford to purchase things.
    so your honesty and kindness is deeply appreciated.
    thank you.

  2. Lauren says:

    Your tutorials are by far the best I have discovered after hours of haunting web pages. Thanks for remeMbering that while it may be child’s play to you, it’s a monumental task for others!

  3. Carol says:

    Lauren and Pat, thank you both for saying such kind things. It’s my pleasure to create and share drawing tutorials so that everyone can learn to draw.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *