Pencil shading techniques: 5 expert tips

Pencil shading techniques
(Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

If you want to master pencil shading techniques, it will take some practice. This is because different pencils create marks that are noticeably different from one another, and understanding which pencil does what is extremely important.

My best advice to learn shading is to go out and experiment with multiple pencils and explore different methods. In this article I'll share my insight to help clarify the learning process. Hopefully you'll be inspired to try shading with intent – and create drawings by employing a range of shading techniques.

If you need some new tools, here's a rundown of the best pencils around. Plus, you can widen your technical expertise further with this guide to pencil drawing techniques or our roundup of the best how to draw tutorials.

Pencil shading techniques: Which pencils should you use?

I used HB mechanical pencils for a long time when I changed my focus from digital to traditional art. However, once I started working with regular pencils, there was a clear execution difference that I wasn't able to produce with mechanical pencils alone. Since then I've discovered techniques on how to produce different textures, tones and results that I combine to create my pieces.

It wasn't just the different HB hardness pencils that showed me the clear difference, such as shading with a 4B versus a 4H. I learned that the tip of the pencil also gave vastly different results. For example, a more rounded tip gave a larger, softer result and was more efficient to work with.

01. Choose your pencils carefully

Pencil shading: pencils

Having a duller-tipped pencil will produce larger areas while shading. They'll also create more of a textured look the higher you go up the B scale (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

I recommend having a few solid pencils at hand that you can use in your work with full knowledge of the results they'll produce. There's a noticeable difference when working with different pencils on the HB scale and how sharp or dull the tip is. Test and see how some will produce dark texture while others create consistent mid-tone smoothness.

Pencil shading: pencils

Going higher on the H scale will produce lighter yet smoother, buttery looking results. Using a small tip mechanical pencil will create precision, but often will smooth out the paper texture when shading to create a more matte look (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

02. Create different types of shading

Pencil shading: different types

The different methods create wildly different results (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Every artist will find the shading method that works best for them and I tend to use a few while drawing. I primarily work with circling, but I've experimented with all of these methods and more to help me create my best results. Each method produces a distinct result and depending on what type of art you want to create, you'll want to find which is best for you! Hatching and stippling often create an underlying presence of texture and roughness. Circling and using a blending stump creates clean, gradual smoothness.

03. Get to know your values when shading

Pencil shading: values

The simple sphere example shows a clear and easy-to-understand separation of values from a singular light source and the shadows it creates (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Take the time to understand how lighting works and the values it creates to shade properly. Do studies, find references and resources that provide this insight, and then apply that knowledge in your practice pieces. There's a range of value to work with, not just dark and light.

Pencil shading: values

Understanding how lighting works will drastically influence your shading execution and consistency in your work (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

04. Practice helps to provide insight

Pencil shading: insight

You can see how I build up the values slowly, creating a foundation that I can confidently make darker marks on top of (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Now that I've been working with a handful of pencils with each drawing, I know when to switch over to another for a particular result. It's traditional and effective to start with a lighter H pencil and then gradually work darker into the B scale, to punch out the values and contrast.

Pencil shading: practice

Higher B pencils tend to be harder to erase and that's why I normally start with a 2H pencil in my work (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

05. Discover which shading techniques suit your style

Pencil shading: techniques

While neither method is wrong, in time you’ll find which technique works best for you. This is why I recommended experimenting (Image credit: Timothy Von Rueden)

Here's an example of two different types of shading methods. The left half has a softer realism finish with gradations on the paper texture done with a circling method and a slow build-up of value. The right half was done primarily with hatching and creates a crisp bold finish.

This article was originally published in ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Subscribe to ImagineFX.

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Timothy is an independent artist showing and selling his work at various conventions across the United States.