How to See Light and Shadow with a Simple Drawing Exercise

By Adriana Guidi in Art Tutorials > Drawing Tips

Years ago when I was studying with my artist friend and teacher Richard Morris, he showed me an easy way of seeing light and shadow using his book of glamour photos from the 1940’s.

The book, Movie-Star Portraits of the Forties, edited by John Kobal, has 163 strikingly beautiful black and white photos of many classic movie stars ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Humphrey Bogart among others.

If you want to try this drawing exercise for yourself, you’ll need a similar type of book (or just some high-contrast black and white photos) some tracing paper, and your drawing pencils or charcoal.

Start by opening up your book and looking for a photograph with plenty of light and shadow, like the photo of Gary Cooper below. Once you’ve found it, lay a piece of tracing paper over your photo.

Black and white Gary Cooper photo for drawing exercise

Use a pencil or charcoal to trace the outline of the head, then look carefully and trace around all the different areas of shadow that you see within the face as well—even the very light ones.

Once you have an outline drawn, fill in the shadows with the side of your pencil or charcoal. Lightly fill in the mid tone shades, go heavier wherever you see the darkest shadows coming through the paper and leave the paper white for the lightest lights.

Gary Cooper drawing with tracing paper

Keep it simple, with not too much detail. The goal is to train your eyes to see the different values visible in a portrait. This will help you when you’re actually drawing your piece, and it also makes for a great light and shadow lesson for drawing students of any age.

You can transition from tracing to drawing from life just by turning off the overhead lights, and setting up one strong light source on a model or any other three-dimensional object.

I find that after I’ve done a few practice runs with the tracing paper and I’m working on the actual portrait, it makes it much easier to see the lines, tones and various value shapes of the head—no matter whether you’re drawing from a photograph, or from a subject right in front of you.

Charcoal drawing of movie star


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