Shading Techniques Applied: Shading a Portrait

My latest course on shading explains how to create realistic lighting using Photoshop. The beautiful part is that the information taught in the course applies to any subject and any medium. The shading techniques course is more than a slick demo or a Photoshop tutorial. It’s core, fundamental principles and concepts of realistic light and shadow.

In this article, I’ll demonstrate how to apply shading techniques to a portrait. See video below for a portrait shading demonstration from a recent ‘Draw With Chris’ Livestream. Photoshop is the medium used in the video. Oil paint is used in the demo for the text version below.

For complete, step by step breakdown, read on…

Portrait Shading Process

STEP 1: Smart observation

The first step is to make careful observation of the subject. In this case we have a female model with beautiful high contrast lighting. This lighting is the best for practicing shading, rendering and edge control. For more on lighting models and choosing reference, see this article on good lighting and choosing good reference.

shading techniques reference full
This image is perfect for studying and practicing shadow because of the beautiful high contrast light. The shadows are nice and dark and clearly defined.

When I observe the model or the reference, I look for:

1. Light and shadow shapes (what’s in light and what’s in shadow)
2. Border of light and shadow (where light and shadow meet)
3. Simplified value shapes (simplified to 2-3 value shapes)

shading techniques observation step

To make a good value observation I squint at the model, which helps me to simplify the color and detail information we see (A). To separate light and shadow, I group the various shadow tones I see into one unified shadow shape. Then I’ll group and simplify the lights (B). A full detailed tutorial on observing values is in the fundamentals chapter of the Shading Techniques Course. To learn more value observation, see this article on how to see in value.

Once we make good observation we can begin the drawing and shading process.


STEP 2: Drawing

shading techniques demo step 1

In this example a simple and crude construction is enough for me to move on with the painting. The drawing doesn’t have to be very tight or polished, but it should have good proportions and placement. There are many, many resources on this site on head drawing. The best videos are in the subscriber exclusive page, so make sure to subscribe to the free newsletter to get access to some great head drawing videos.


STEP 3: Block in Shadow

shading techniques demo step 2

Just like in the observation step, I block-in the shadow shape I see with a dark/medium-dark tone.


STEP 4: Transition Tones

shading techniques demo step 3

Transition tones is where I begin to transition from shadow to light. Here a dark half-tone was used at the core shadow.


STEP 5: Block in Lights

shading techniques demo step 4

In oil paint, I like to work in a dark to light sequence so blocking-in the lights are the next logical step. Here a light half-tone is used on the face, skin and hair in light.


STEP 6: Darks and Lights

shading techniques demo step 5

Next I want to establish the full value range. To do this I ned to paint the darkest darks and the lightest lights. Starting with the darks, the first obvious dark shape is the background. Then I also darken the darkest parts of the shadow and other dark accent areas like the small shapes in the eye, nose and corner of mouth.

shading techniques demo step 6

Now that the darks are established, I can more clearly see how bright I can go with the highlights and lightest-light values. The brightest highlight in the painting is at the forehead, cheek and and nose. I also add a bright light to the chest at the bottom. This helps create some tension and interest in the composition. I learned that little trick by studying the tonal composition of old master painters. See this article on tonal composition for more.

For each highlight I make sure to gradually darken the highlight value as I move away from the light. This creates the illusion of a realistic light source near the top of the form. An in-depth breakdown of where and when to use dark and light accents and highlights is included in the Shading Techniques Course.

Dark and light accents completes the ‘block-in’ stage and now I can begin to refine my work by refining all of the shapes and values I’ve just established.


STEP 7: Render

shading techniques demo step 7

Rendering is simply refining shapes, values and edges. This means the soft edges soft, the hard edges hard and correct any drawing as needed. This stage takes the most amount of time and labor. It’s really just a matter of working until the drawing or painting feels right. Rendering is long, but can be a lot of fun, especially the block-in stage is done correctly.


STEP 8: Polish

shading techniques demo final

Finally to complete the painting, I add a last pass of polish. This includes fine details, texture and value adjustments. For this painting I went a little ‘high-tech’ and used Photoshop for the polish step.

First I polish the eyes since they are the focal point. Then, I refine the texture and materials. This means I make the skin feel like skin and add texture in the hair. Lastly, I make value corrections. In Photoshop, I use a combination of adjustment layers to darken the canvas overall, then masking out areas that I want to remain bright. This is mostly in the areas at the top of the head like the hair, forehead, eyes and upper cheeks. This reinforces the feeling of a round, curved 3-dimensional form. If done correctly, it adds drama, mood and a striking sense of realism to the light.

Step by step handout below (click to enlarge):

shading-techniques-process handout

Do You Want To Learn More?

To get the most in-depth tutorial ever created on shading, light and shadow, check out the full course, Shading Techniques in Photoshop.


It has over 2 hours of video, including the complete lecture on shading fundamentals. The video on fundamentals is worth the price of the course alone. The course covers everything you see in this tutorial, but in great depth and detail.  To learn more, click the link below to visit the course page:

As always, I can answer any questions you may have about this shading tutorial or the Shading Techniques course in the comments below.

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13 thoughts on “Shading Techniques Applied: Shading a Portrait”

  1. Hi Gus, great question! Traditional of course. Pencil and paper is still the best. And someday you may not have electricity or your cpu may break so it’s good to be able to draw the old fashioned way 🙂

  2. Oh wow, oils are toxic. Yes acrylic is fine. Any medium is fine. It’s the fundamental principles that are important.

  3. For the oil is a bristle flat. Robert Simmons brand. For the digital its a flat custom brush. The brush file is included in the course of course 🙂

  4. Hey Eric, yes many! First it’s value, make sure the values are close together. In terms of technique there’s a lot of ways. In painting, use a soft sable brush. In digital I like the gradation tool. For charcoal, stumps and tissue paper work great! Hope that helps.

  5. Wow thanks for so many good tips!!! I always find it difficult to blend in good gradation when I’m painting. It always ends up looking very rough. I’ll post a pic on your Facebook group soon! Thanks heaps Chris!!

  6. Chris, you really are an acomplished artist and teacher. I myself am an artist and a teacher also. Still i admit that I can learn from you. I want your opinion on which area you think you can help me. Go to my website and see some of my work.

  7. I am really Inspired by you,and I like your head with shading, figure drawing with different style and technique. so please help me.

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