Art Teacher Talk

Shading Techniques – Shade with a Pencil

Realistic graphite pencil drawings rely heavily on proper shading techniques. Once a solid contour line drawing is established, learning to shade with graphite pencil is the next step in a successful drawing. Value identification, value application and value transitions all play an important role in a realistic pencil drawing.

How it Begins

As Art Teachers, we’ve all been there…

The contour line drawings are SO good.

The proportions are spot on.

The perspective is on point.

The student confidence is soaring.

Then the shading begins.

Pencils are moving frantically all over the room.

Students are shading like the ship is going down.

And for some of us it’s a big ship – 35 plus students and only one of us.

How it Ends

As we walk around the room we see a variety of scenarios.

Pencil strokes that are so heavy they nearly cut through the paper.

Shading techniques that are so harsh and so frantic there is no chance of burnishing. Ever.

Values that are too light, values that are too dark, values that are non-existent from lack of trying.

Then there’s the dreaded Eraser Fest.

The desk looks like someone took an eraser through a cheese grater…

Ok, you get it.

The Eternal Question

So how do we get every student on the same page?

Shading beautifully, with a full range of value.

And yes, I mean every student.

Not just a few who walk in the room and get it from the start.


If you’ve been following my blog you know that I am a huge proponent of a slow-paced scaffolded approach to building skills.

Skills build confidence.

Confidence builds engagement.

Engagement kills apathy.

I have students from all backgrounds and skill levels in my Drawing class. Kids who love to draw and kids who got stuck in there to fulfill a credit. No matter where they came from, they are all invested in the task at hand – no matter the task.

Here’s why.

The Promise

They can be confident of three things.

Number 1 – There is always a method to Mrs. Fox’s madness. Shading techniques are important.

Number 2 – They can do this – all they need to do is learn it.

Number 3 – All the information necessary to master the skill will be presented in a way they can easily understand and definitely conquer.

I explain it like this to the kids. “These value and shading skills carry through to all other mediums. We will apply this logic to every medium we learn.” Fighting through the “getting to know you” phase of learning a new medium (see prior blog post “Acrylic Painting Breakdown) is critical to mastering technique.

Ok, enough philosophy.

Knowing how to shade with a pencil, combined with the stamina to get the job done (that’s why we call it artWORK) sets a rock solid foundation for strong work. If I skim over this skill set, when I get to colored pencil and even painting, the struggle will be real and the confidence will suffer. When the confidence suffers the motivation plummets, and we all know what happens when the motivation is gone. Cue the behavior issues.

The Process

The featured introductory lessons for this blog post is the graphite pencil Mini-Sphere Worksheet.

Once we take our notes on Value (in the No Outline Sphere Lesson featured in a future blog post) and review past student drawings, the kids shade a Value Scale.

A 7-part very boring no-originality-at-all value scale.

We focus on identifying value and matching that value exactly, as we use a value scale for all pencil drawings. They need to show me their finished value scale before they begin the Mini-Sphere shading exercise. I ask them to squint and examine the value scale reference and then their shaded version below it. They tell me if any of the values need to be darker or lighter.

The main objective of the value scale is to help them learn to read a reference photo. To understand and evaluate a full range of value. The next objective is to manipulate the graphite pencil to create this full range of value without the use of a blending object (fingers, paper stump or otherwise). The science behind the “no finger smudging” is the oils in your fingers mix with the graphite and this results in a drawing with dirty spots. Once they hear this they have no desire to finger smudge. I see it stop almost immediately.

*If you’re thinking this seems intense, that’s because it is. I always say to the kids, “If it seems like I’m picky it’s because I am.” Cracks them up every time. But they like it. Kids like high expectations. Kids like structure. And they like the idea of creating work that dazzles the viewer. They’ve seen the evidence of what students create in my class. So they have no trouble shading a square a little darker to get it right.

Back to the sphere.

It’s the same foundational theory as the acrylic value scale (see Acrylic Painting Breakdown post). The sphere is simple. It’s small. It’s not intimidating. It’s doable for everyone. Heck, it’s only 2 x 2 inches…see image below. I shot an instructional tutorial (for the virtual kids) but we watch it together in class with the f2f kids and I point out key techniques during the viewing.

The Time Frame

I am a tight due date kind of gal – we are on a 90 minute block schedule (82 this year thank you Covid) because I have found that the more time kids have to complete a task the greater chance for behavior issues. The quality of work begins to suffer and the chance for giving up increases.

I give them one class period to complete this mini-sphere exercise. I grade it very hard and I give a lot of intense feedback during class (I am always moving about the room as they work). This really helps them understand how important solid shading techniques are and it helps them see what they can do with graphite pencil. Remember, they have seen a lot of inspiring work from previous students so they know what is possible.

*Side Note: I stress that starting over is not a crime. Making mistakes is how we learn. We go over this during the “I AM” Boards lesson and students know that starting over sends the message that they care about their work. Everything they do sends a message, whether they want it to or not.

As for the practical skill building, I demo and re-demo how to shade with a pencil, how to move the pencil across the paper, how to hold the pencil, how it needs to be sharp. I have them re-watch the video if need be. I show them how to keep the heel of their hand out of the drawing to avoid that cloudy smudgy effect. All of this may seem very over the top but good habits in the beginning make future drawings much stronger. (See examples below)

The kids will tell you they learn the most from this one little sphere exercise. It lays the foundation for all of the drawings to follow. It’s a firm landing place for them to return when the drawing starts to go what we call in my room “off the rails.”

We are working on self-portraits right now and when roadblocks arise, they are usually due to value and shading issues that throw off the line drawing. We just talked about it today as a matter of fact…I tell them to return to the basics of the Mini-Sphere and to re-evaluate the reference and the value scale. Works every time.

Back to scaffolding.

The Payoff

Laying this technical skill foundation has benefits upon benefits. Once the shading techniques are mastered (by everyone), and the confidence is on the rise, we can attempt any subject matter (2D or life drawing) with ease. The kids are not intimidated because they have the basics down pat. They know how to shade with a pencil, so when I break out the fabric and drape it over a stool and throw everyone a blue ballpoint pen I have no pushback, no whining, no negativity. We’ll talk about pen and ink in a future post, but here are some teaser images…(that first one was done on a Zoom call with the fabric set up in my room – we’ll talk about that in a future post)

Curly Paper Drawing Lesson

I say all of the above to say this.

Start small.

Start simple.


Grow that confidence.

In everyone in the room.

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Have a wonderful and safe year and Happy Teaching!

I appreciate you taking time to read and I hope it has been worthwhile. Have a wonderful day and Happy Teaching!

Tiff 🙂

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reflected light

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