Basic Shading Techniques

Understanding how to shade properly helps us to offer a more three-dimensional look in our art. Values, or tones are just varying shades of grey and using a variety of different values is where you begin when you start shading. For me, personally, I prefer just sort of randomly laying down the darker areas, then working with a tortillion, blending stump, or even a chamois cloth. Q-tips have been useful in a pinch and I have even blended fingers. I know, the scandal! Often times, when you’re sort of caught up in a creative rush, you might just find yourself getting equally creative with random things around you: not just for shading, but for adding texture as well.

Here are a few of the more common techniques for shading charcoal and pencil projects.


I have heard so many debates and arguments over cross-hatching; it’s almost a political issue. Essentially, when you crosshatch, you’re overlapping sets of lines- you can have lines that far apart from each other and this creates a bit of white space, whereas those close together create a more or less solid tone. This is going to really depend on what sort of shading effect you’re looking for and usually, I find that crosshatching works out a lot better with graphite than it does charcoal.

Basic Hatching

Basic hatching is just laying down a set of curved or straight lines that promote a sense of value. Again, like with crosshatching- you just space them the way that you need to create the value you want.

Using Circles As Shading Tools

Some people just scribble it out, some make wide loops and swirls, some make tiny, tight circles: but any way you do it, this is actually a remarkably versatile method of shading. My girlfriend first introduced me to this practice, as it really hadn’t been my habit. Her background is in tattooing, and this is often a method of choice to prevent blank spots in a large coloured area and to enhance the shading of any given piece. I have actually taken to using circling in my charcoal with quite a bit of pleasant success in the fluidity of the shading because of it. 

circle shading

Circle Shading, Crosshatching, Hatching. Nitram HB Charcoal

Though a lot of people will debate what sort of shading technique is best, really, this is another one of those things that is down to personal preference. As I mentioned in our blog post about choosing paper: many people really cling to what either their teachers told them, what they have always known, or what they have the best experiences with. There’s nothing wrong with that, but often, you’d be surprised at what kind of unique personality you can give a piece purely by switching it up. Often, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zones can either be a tremendously rewarding experience or a total disaster: but either way, it’s still an experience.

Working with the basics, however, here are some things you need to know:

  • A combination of techniques can make any of these basic types of shading really work for you. Varying the density, the pressure you apply, different grades of charcoal or switching from your batons to vines, to pencils can alter your work significantly. If you want to work with light values, harder charcoals usually work best. Softer charcoals render darker values.
  • Allow your charcoal to do the work for you- when you’re looking to create a dark value, a softer grade with a light touch can be plenty, whereas the harder grade makes for ease in control when working with light values. If you’re just getting started, or you need more practice, graduation and shading scales and circles are usually the old stand by with good reason.
  • Hatching may be the simplest way of shading, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for the piece you’re working on. For instance, if you’re wanting to create a smoother transition in terms of values- crosshatching is probably the way to go because you can more easily allow value flow. If it’s just something like creating more realistic eyelashes or hair in a portrait, then hatching is probably going to be more beneficial.
  • Practicing with a graduation or shading scale allows you to become better acquainted with working with continuous progression of values. As you work, you’re trying to keep your transitions tight and smooth. This can be fairly easy to accomplish by drawing the lines more tightly together as you’re working towards the darker values, or spacing them further apart as you go into lighter values.
  • Keep it gentle for the lighter values and simply apply pressure to progressively darken your values.
  • Try switching up your charcoal grades and types as you do this, rather than using any other techniques. This will help you to become accustomed to working with a variety of different charcoals and broaden your skillset.

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