Practice Graduated and Continuous Shading

Drawing shaded letters with a pencil on a white piece of paper.

Unless you're going for a crisp, clean line drawing, shading is a crucial technique to practice when working with pencils. It's a little more involved than coloring with crayons, like you did as a kid, if you want to achieve the smoothest transitions between gray tones.

Shading adds dimension and depth to pencil drawings. It allows you to move smoothly from highlights to shadows and create defined mid-tones in between. After some practice, you'll start to see an improvement in all your drawings.

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Why Create Grayscale Gradients?

A gray scale, vertically arranged.

Tomás Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

One of the best ways to your develop shading technique is to create simple grayscale drawings. These are nothing more than a series of evenly-spaced blocks that go from the darkest blacks to the lightest shade you can get.

While it seems trivial to color in gray blocks, you'll find that this easy exercise can do wonders for refining your pencil work. It allows you to get a feel for how hard or soft you need to be to create a specific tone and even how to use layers to create smooth gradients.

You can also use it to familiarize yourself with how different pencils and papers work together. This will certainly influence how you approach your next drawing, so let's start shading.

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A Simple Pencil Grayscale

stepped shading
stepped shading.

ThoughtCo/Helen South

A simple pencil grayscale is your first step in getting control of your pencil shading.

  1. Draw a ladder grid of five one-inch squares.
  2. Using the tip of a sharp pencil, shade the first square as dark as you can and the last as light as you can.
  3. Shade the remaining squares in even steps between the two, so that the middle square is a good mid-tone.

Try this with a range of pencils — from 6B through to 2H — so you can see the range of tone that can be achieved with each one.

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An Extended Pencil Grayscale

seven step shading
seven step shading.

ThoughtCo/Helen South

The next step is to try doing the same thing in a seven-step grayscale. A B or 2B pencil should give you the full seven steps. However, you may need to manipulate it a little to get the very lightest tones, erasing lightly and reworking it.

For a really effective grayscale, use harder and softer pencils to get the lighter and darker shades you need. Overlay the different grades to get good transitional tones.

If needed, print out a computer grayscale to use as a reference.

The Paper Makes a Difference

If you have difficulty getting a solid dark tone, your paper may be too smooth. Consider doing some grayscale shading on various papers you're interested in working with. The knowledge you get from these tests can direct you to the right paper for future drawings.

  • Wood-pulp paper can have soft fibers that collapse under the pressure of the pencil instead of grabbing the graphite.
  • Coarse fibers may also grab too much graphite in irregular patches. This makes it difficult to achieve a smooth, light tone.
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Graduated Tones

ThoughtCo/Helen South

Practice doing gradual, continuous shading from light to dark and vice versa. Try using different pencil techniques such as parallel shading, hatching in various directions, or small circles to find which works best for you.

Use a single pencil and also try using a combination of pencils. Don't use your fingers to blend tones. Instead, practice the use of layered shading and controlled pressure to create the variation.