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Thinking about Figure Drawing: all about the Shadow Shapes

June 27, 2016


This week I’m taking a class! The twice annual figure drawing intensive course at UQAM. We’ll be doing five full days of figure painting, with a wide variety of models and poses. I expect it to be an excellent bit of training, right before we jump off for our workshop in Ireland, and the USK symposium in Manchester the week after.

In any case – right as I was thinking of heading back into figure painting – I happened to get a question about drawing shadow shapes from a student in my class.

I collected this set of older images to help answer her question, and I thought I’d repost these examples here.

Shadow Shapes Tuttorial (1)In this collection of images, you can see I’ve been drawing shadow shapes the whole time I’ve been learning to paint. Back in 2010 I might have sketched in black brush pen, or tinted with color over-top of ballpoint pen drawings and later fountain pens. In more recent years I’m starting to draw with calligraphy nibs, and more seamlessly combine washes – or – just sketch the whole thing with a long hair quill brush. Eventually, my goal is ‘real painting’. Just seeing the shapes of shadows as a single unit of color, and not needing a drawing underneath.

No matter how you go about it, this kind of modeling of the form, by drawing the high-contrast edge of the light – it seems to be fundamental to the way I (we?) see.

Shadow Shapes Tuttorial (4)

These are my annual Edgar Allen Poe-traits from 2013 and 2014 (ok, that’s not very annual – I seem to have missed a year!) But you can see two different (equally useful) ways to draw shadow shapes.

First with a pencil – outlining all the edges between values. And in the second version – simply massing in the big shapes, directly with the brush. Using the edge of the wet/dry wash on paper to simultaneously draw the shadow and the light.

Shadow Shapes Tuttorial (7)In this direct-to-ink drawing from 2015, you can see a more playful sketch of shadow shapes. Once again, I’m basically drawing the terminator edges of light. I don’t really draw eyes or nose or lips, I just draw light patterns.

This sketch was part of an ink solubility test. I ended up using this Noodler’s Red/Black as my favorite ink for about a year. Only quitting when I found its ultra-slow drying time too great a liability in humid climates.Shadow Shapes Tuttorial (5)I think the philosophy of outlining shadow edges is also visible in these sketches from the 2015 Rodin exhibition at the Beaux Arts. I always feel like a good drawing contains a map for the color. These kind of ‘note taking sketches’ are drawn on the spot, and often painted after the rush is over. I need to be fairly clear to myself where the volumes of shadow are, if I plan to pick it up the next day.


Shadow Shapes Tuttorial (3)

As I dive into this week long figure drawing event – let’s see if I can get back to that feeling of direct painting! I’ll report back in with the results next week :)


15 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynn Patten permalink
    June 27, 2016 9:06 AM


    I was looking at the National Gallery site this morning and the online feature they have for the 1760-ish sketchbook made in Rome by Hubert Robert. You can view an enlargement of each page, and each page are made with the fountain pen water melted technique, and there is even a page of statues lined up in a row as a ‘collection’ and assembled as he walked around the city. They are also in the long landscape format.

    Great stuff and I think you’d entirely enjoy it.

    I love all your work, classes, blogposts – everything! I’m so happy to have something to share with you.

    • June 27, 2016 9:19 AM

      Excellent! What a great find – am at class today, will check it out tonight – thx :)

    • June 27, 2016 7:02 PM

      Hah! Yes this really is a great urban sketching sketchbook! I guess there really is nothing new under the sun :)

  2. lucia permalink
    June 27, 2016 10:29 AM

    Thanks, Mark.
    I find your posts fascinating, meticoulous and exceedingly generous!
    Love them.

  3. June 27, 2016 12:15 PM

    Very interesting post Marc! Is interesting how you just trace the shadow shapes as base of your sketch great tip to try out! Thank you for sharing this!

  4. June 28, 2016 6:37 AM

    Thanks for sharing. I remember in one of my drawing classes (many, many years ago) about the color and shadows. I think we referred to these two as positive and negative shapes.
    Your post just reminded me of this. I think your drawings you have used are wonderful and I hope you find lots of success in your classes.

  5. June 28, 2016 10:28 AM

    May I ask a question please? And I apologize if this is not where I should ask…but I can’t find this info easily.
    Why do you & other artist sketchers use specialized pens – like Lamy etc? Would it terrible to use say a PILOT or PENTEL roller ball?

    • June 28, 2016 5:02 PM

      I’ve done heaps of drawings with roller ball pens – but ultimatley, there are many advantages to art pens. They write smother, have more expressive marks, you can change ink color anytime you want, and the inks have special properties such as archival permanance or water solubility (if you want it). The upside of disposables is they’re cheap! But – they’re wasteful if you throw out 6 or 7 a month too. So there you go!

      • June 28, 2016 8:13 PM

        It’s good to know I can use what I have as I learn; especially since I am “late to the party” by almost 4 decades and am just beginning to cultivate the artist in me. Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer.

  6. October 7, 2016 5:28 AM

    Mr Holmes,
    First, thanks for sharing this.
    I find very difficult to “see” the shadows zones and the “grey” levels they generate. Would you have an advice about a practice which may help see them and estimate them (eg. for hatching or inking) ?
    Thanks for your time and help

  7. June 28, 2021 9:44 PM

    Awesome details thank you for sharing Mark, i was wondering if think it’s a good idea to use digital references to learn faster, or even actual dolls with artificiel lighting maybe like the ones on are worth buying.

    • June 28, 2021 11:00 PM

      Well, I’m not sure about 3D or poseable characters. I’ve certainly had access to 3D, and I’ve bought those dolls too, but to be honest, I’ve never had the patience to use either one of them. I couldn’t get results quickly enough to learn much with those approaches.

      When I was learning to draw people, I did it from life. I used to go to life drawing classes as many as three times a week. Just the normal 5/10/20 minute poses with a live model. If you don’t have access to posed models (I mean, there’s certainly a cost, and time/challenges to organize these events. Most towns have more than one life-drawing club, (especially if there is an art-school or university). But of course not this year with Covid.) Anyway, If you don’t have places to draw from the live model, you can draw from people on the street, or at sport events, or maybe musicians on stage – I like musicians because they’re entertaining me as I draw! and at the same time they can’t leave the area until I’ve finished drawing them! hah!


  1. 2016 UQAM Life Drawing Intensive | Citizen Sketcher

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