How to Shade Your Portrait

Are you a beginner to drawing? If so it’s important to pick up a couple of important tips to help you shade in your portrait in a more realistic manner by making use of shading techniques and being able to apply different tones, blending techniques and a high degree of contrast.

To help you shade in your portrait of your favorite celebrity, all images on come in grid format along with a gray-scale image to help you see the graduations in shadow, halftone and highlights.

  1. An A3/A4 sketch pad or sheet of paper
  2. An eraser (a kneaded eraser is best)
  3. A set of graphite pencils that include soft, medium and hard pencils (for example: 4B, 2B, B, F, 2H, 4H)
  4. Tissue paper or kitchen towel to blend tones
  5. Clean sheet paper to lean on to prevent smudging shaded areas of your drawing

Materials you’ll need to shade your portrait.


Learning How to Shade:

There are many methods of shading and blending, we’ve covered only the basics here.

Keep Your Drawing Clean and Smudge-free:

  1. Set out your materials and keep your drawing area tidy. Remove food and drinks from the area.
  2. Make sure your hand are clean. Wash them with soap to prevent oil from your fingers crating smears on your page while you work.
  3. When sharpening your pencils, keep the shavings away from your drawing and wash your hands with soap and water to ensure you don’t smudge your drawing.
  4. As your drawing progresses, you may need to work over areas you have already drawn. To prevent smudging, ensure your hands or clothing doesn’t rub over your drawing. Place a clean piece of paper over your drawing to rest your hand on.

If you are using a grid to draw, remember to rub out the grid lines in the area you are working in before you begin shading.

Working With Your Drawing Materials:

  1. It is best to have the right materials to ensure you get the best results in your drawing.
  2. It is very difficult to build up dark areas of your drawing if you are working with hard pencils (H pencils) only.
  3. Therefore it is advisable to have a range of soft (B pencils) and hard pencils. If you are unable to buy a box set, try to make sure you have at least a 2B or 4B (soft), F or HB (medium) and 2H or 4H (hard) pencil.
  4. Use a kneaded eraser, the major benefits of this type of eraser are that you can shape it to various sizes/shapes to erase is small areas on your drawing and it leaves no residue or shavings as you erase.
  5. If you are working with a regular eraser, you can use a clean, soft paint brush to lightly brush over the eraser shavings to removing them from your drawing without smudging it.
  6. The texture of the paper you are working on will influence the end result. It’s difficult to produce a smote effect of fine skin if you are using a course or rough paper texture.

If your portrait is shaded in using very similar grey tones throughout, you’ll find it may look dull and boring. To give your portrait life and vibrancy, it is important to work with high contrast. High contrast means having both very light and very dark tones present on your drawing. BUT BEWARE: Dark strokes are not easy to erase, so build them up slowly and don’t press so hard that you create indents in your paper.

Shading Techniques:

Watch this video below to see graphite pencil shading techniques in action by


Holding Your Pencil:

If you are a beginner at shading, try out different ways of holding your pencil to see what feels most comfortable for you.

Holding your pencil upright (like you would when writing) results in the sharp tip of the pencil connecting with the paper. This is good for creating detailed marks, or for making marks to cover a small area – for example the detail to be found in features such as the eyes, lips or nostrils. This is generally done with harder pencils (F, H, 2H, etc)

Holding your pencil sideways at an angle, allows for a larger area of the pencil tip to make contact with the paper. This produces broader, less detailed strokes. These strokes are useful for shading in areas of the face for example shadows cast by the cheekbones, on the neck, under the chin and tones in the hair.


Shading and Textures:

There are many different techniques to use when you shade. Here are some of the most basic. You should experiment with all of these until you become comfortable with each.

Broad Strokes:


Pencil hardness from left to right: 2B, F and 2H


Pencil hardness from left to right: 2B, F and 2H


Pencil hardness from left to right: 2B, F and 2H

If you’re a beginner, practice these sketching techniques on a separate piece of paper until you are comfortable with them before applying them to your portrait.

  • When you are drawing a realistic portrait, you are attempting to render a three-dimensional object (a real head and face) in pencil on a one-dimensional surface (your flat page). To make your portrait look as three-dimensional as possible, pay careful attention to the direction of your pencil lines.
  • Your lines should follow the contour of the form. Look at you hand. See how your hand and fingers have round edges. When shading in the edges of a hand or finger, the direction of the lines and shading on your page should follow the same contours to produce the appearance of roundness.

Tonal Variance:

  1. Harder pencils (H, 2H , 4H) are best suited to fine detail and lighter shades.
  2. Softer pencils (B, 2B, 4B, 6B) are better suited to broader, plainer areas.


Building Up Shadows:

When you are working on building up a very dark area in your drawing, begin by using a 2B or 4B pencil sideways to make broad strokes. Then use an HB, F or B pencil to cross-hatch into the dark area.

In the image above, a 2B pencil was used on it’s side in the first mark on the left. Then the tip of an F pencil was used to cross-hatch over the first mark, then the 2B pencil was used again to build up the shadow.

If your shadow has a hard edge, use a hard pencil (2H or H) to draw the outline between the light and hard shadow. A hard pencil creates a clean, hard edge, whereas a soft pencil usually creates a fuzzier line, particularly on textured paper.


The lightest point on your page must be kept white. Be careful to keep your highlights white and smudge free. Use your eraser to clean them.


  1. Don’t use hard outlines for every shape: Some shapes in your drawing may have very definite hard lines (nostril cavities for example), however most shapes do not have definite starting and ending points because they blend into one another (for example, the bridge of the nose, or cheekbones). Therefore to create a realistic drawing, don’t make heavy outlines for around detail, rather use shading to build up tones.
  2. Blending with a tissue or kitchen towel: You can use various cloths to blend, but tissues and kitchen towels are the most commonly available materials. If you want to create a very smooth shading effect you can use tissues to smudge the area to smooth it out. Place a clean tissue over your finger, crumple up the rest of the tissue and hold it in your hand so it doesn’t drag over other areas of your drawing and smudge them. Then lightly rub the area you want to blend. This can also be very effective as a foundation undertone that you then work over with pencil line shading.

Drawing Hair: Don’t try to draw every individual strand of hair, rather use direction lines and crosshatching or squiggle shading to suggest the form. Remember to leave highlights and and show dark areas to add depth.

Practice Makes Perfect!

  • The old cliche is correct – “practice makes perfect”. Remember the masters didn’t crack it over night – many of the world’s best known artists took years or decades to hone their craft.
  • If you don’t get the results you desired in your first attempt, be gentle with yourself, take a deep breath and give it another try. The more you sketch, the better you’ll become at it!