Shadows, midtones, and highlights which are caused by our trusty light source the Sun, make all the awesome stuff we see everyday visible. To create a believable and interesting 3D image on a 2D surface you must become BFF’s with these three things that make up the design element: Value or Tone.
As an 18-21 year old student in my early art classes I really struggled to comfortably discern between the three and determine what I needed to adjust to make everything look right.
What Exactly Are Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights?
Basically, Highlights are the really bright spots that get the most direct amount of light. The Shadows are the dark spots created by something that is blocking the light. The Midtones are everything in between the two extremes.
After I got my initial sketch of Dynamite down with correct proportions it was time to focus on building the variety of tones that will form the dog.
- I like to start with my darkest darks and my lightest lights. I mark where the white parts and the bright highlights are so that I make sure to keep them clean. It’s a lot harder to remove than to add. And I like adding the darks early on because they help me to adjust and refine placement and they’ll eventually disappear a little bit as the drawing develops. They’re also really easy to see.
- After filling in the darks and lights, I start filling in the midtones almost everywhere, following the shapes of the muscles and folds in her coat. I also add a light layer of pencil in the background so that Dynamite has a place to live in.
- The last step is to continue adding the variety of values (tones) until the drawing can be called finished. After drawing for a while, I noticed that her belly and her back leg area needed to be moved down some. Both were easy fixes.
Practice working gradually in a balanced pattern throughout the image being careful not to focus on just one part of the image for too long. If you do work on one single detail you run the risk of making irreversible mistakes.
So that’s Value in a nutshell.
I’ve noticed that at first, the people I’ve taught art to really struggle to discern Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights . . . and it’s easy to get a little discouraged. Just Remember it will eventually become second nature. I can barely remember a time when my brain didn’t notice these three and all the other elements of design. If you diligently practice seeing these details you’ll get to the point where you can’t NOT see them.
I always think of that crazy guy from Burn Notice in S3 E5 who said, “Once you see a pattern, you can’t un-see it.” That’s what we’re going for, minus the crazy part. Then again, if crazy works for you . . .
Quick Tip Before you Go:
When you’re working with graphite, you can cover the entire page with a graphite powder if you like to speed up the process. It’s such a light layer of graphite, that you’ll be able to draw in details with your graphite pencils and your kneaded eraser. Read the label carefully! It’s pretty dangerous stuff to breathe in.