3 common shading mistakes that lead to flat drawings

In this recent episode on Proko, I share the principle behind creating realistic light & shadow (it might blow your mind) and show how to steer clear of the three most common shading mistakes!

Inclination & Brightness on a flat plane

The brightest area of any surface is where it faces the light directly. As the surface turns away from the light source, it gets darker. Here is an example of a simple plane. It’s noon and the sunlight is coming straight from above. At 0° inclination, we get 100% brightness. On the other extreme, at 90° inclination, we get 0% brightness.

Lambert’s Cosine Emission Law

Your turn! What do you think, what brightness percentage do you get at 80° of inclination?
Hover or tap here to reveal the solution.

Woah. Now what about the other extreme? How much brightness do we get at 10° of inclination?
Again, hover or tap here to reveal the solution.

🤯 What’s going on?!

This, my friend, is how value changes as form turns away from the light direction. It’s not linear (100%, 90%, 80%, etc…) as you may have thought. It follows what is called Lambert’s Cosine Emission Law.

Here are the brightness percent numbers: 100, 99, 97, 94, 89, 82, 73, 62, 45, 0. (Source.)

Let’s compare a linear scale with a Lambert or “Light on Form” scale:

If you were to shade an object with the linear scale, can you see how it would go way too dark, way too quickly?

Three common shading mistakes

If you don’t understand Heinrich Lambert’s “Cosine Law”, you are prone to make these mistakes.

1) “Dirty Lights”

If you make your light halftones too dark, your shading won’t read like shading but rather like discoloration on the surface of the object you are drawing. Remember, the brightness drops 100%, 99%, 97%, etc. with each 10° of rotation. Make sure to keep the value change subtle in the light halftones.

2) “Dark Halftone Halo”

If, on the other extreme, you don’t make your dark halftones dark enough, the form will appear flat and you might see what appears like a halo or light glow next to the terminator/shadow line.

3) Making the Reflected light too Bright

This shading mistake is not directly related to Lambert’s Cosine Law, but it is very common so I’d like to mention it here as well. Many artists (me included) seem to have a tendency to make reflected lights too bright. When we do this, the integrity of the shading is broken and the image becomes confusing. When in doubt, keep your reflected lights a bit too dark/subtle, rather than too bright.

Common Shading Mistakes

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