Drawing Value: Shading Tonal Values With Graphite Pencil

Using Value Instead of Line

A graphite drawing of a soldier on a rooftop.
U.S. Government / Public Domain

The aim of realist value drawing is to show the light and shadow and surface tones, creating a three-dimensional illusion. Outlines only define visible edges and don't tell us anything about light and dark. Linear drawing and value drawing are two different 'systems' of representation. Mixing up the two can be confusing if realistic drawing is your aim.

Change Your Approach

When creating a value drawing, you need to shift out of line-drawing mode, and the best way to do this is to forbid yourself to draw a line and focus on areas of value. You might use the lightest of lines to get down the basic shapes. From there, build up the shading. Often the 'outline' will be at the join between two different values and is created by the contrast between the light and dark area.

Use the Background to Define Foreground Objects

Pay attention to drawing the shadows and background. Use them to provide contrast. A 'halo' of shading, like a vignette around the subject, is rarely successful. Leaving the background blank can work, but remember it's okay to let an edge fade into the background - don't outline.

Value drawing is like painting in graphite, and although the process is different to using a brush, you need to think in terms of areas as opposed to lines. Shade the darks, observing the shape and value, shading carefully up to the edge of adjoining light areas. The astounding realism that we see in some images is this approach taken to a very high degree of detail, where the tonal values are closely observed and finely drawn.

In the example shown here, a detail from a still-life study, a glass of wine provides interesting reflections and highlights. Sometimes it can seem odd, drawing strange shapes across the smooth surface, or light value when you know the wine is dark or letting the edge vanish against the background when you want to draw a line; but if you trust your eyes and try to capture what you see, a realistic drawing will emerge.

Tools for the Job

An H pencil should be as hard as you need for lightest tones; an HB will give you a good mid range, with B and 2B for darker shades. For very dark areas a 4 or 6 B might be needed.

Using the Pencil

Keep your pencils sharp, and apply the tone with small rapid circular or sideways movement of the hand. Randomly varying the stopping/starting point of the shading will help avoid unwanted bands running through an area of shading. Use a slightly harder pencil to work back over an area done with a soft pencil, to even out the tone and fill the tooth of the paper. This also reduced the contrast in texture between the various grades of pencil. An eraser can be used to lift off highlights. I recommend that beginners avoid blending or smudging at first, but rather learn to get the most out of the pencil mark. Once you are confident with your shading, you might like to try using a paper stump to blend tones. Make sure you use a full range of tone - many beginners are afraid of dark tones, or jump from light to dark but miss the in-between steps.