11 Pencil Shading Techniques for Artists

Pencil shading is a fundamental aspect of drawing, an unavoidable step that we can’t skip and a lesson we need to learn in order to master pencil drawing. By effectively using shading techniques you’ll be able to make your drawings come to life, adding texture, dimension and character to your art. 

In this guide we’ll dive into all you need to know about pencil shading techniques, from understanding the basics behind the pencil grading scale to different blending techniques and their applications. We’ll also learn how to use contrast and value to enhance the depth and realism in your art. Let’s get started!

Understanding Pencil Grades

Before we jump to the different shading techniques we can use, let’s learn a bit more about the different pencil grades and how they might affect your work. 

Graphite pencils are made of a mix of graphite and clay, some pencils have more graphite than others, while some have more clay. To measure the proportions correctly we have a grading scale:

  • Hard Pencils: Hard pencils are the ones with more clay on them. Clay makes the pencil firmer, but reduces the amount of graphite on it, making the core “lighter”. You’ll be able to identify them by the “H” on them followed by a number (i.e.: 3H, 6H, 9H, etc.)
  • Soft Pencils: Soft pencils are the ones with more graphite on them. The lack of clay makes the pencil softer, hence the core gets “darker”. You’ll be able to identify them by the “B” on them followed by a number (i.e.: 2B, 4B, 8B, etc.)
  • HB and F Pencils: HB and F Pencils lie at the middle of the scale, HB being the perfect balance of blackness and hardness, while F being the same but slightly firmer, which is great for technical drawing and writing with it.

Hard Pencils are able to maintain a fine point for a very long time, they have a lighter tone and are good for technical drawing and sketching, while Soft Pencils are better for filling large areas, working on dark values, shading and blending.

11 Pencil Shading Techniques to Learn

Below we’ll cover 11 fundamental shading techniques that will be necessary to learn to take your drawing skills to the next level.  We’ll start with basic shading techniques hatching and cross-hatching, and others; we’ll move on to several blending techniques, and finally cover how to handle light sources, contrast, and value.

1. Hatching

Hatching is a shading technique that involves drawing closely spaced parallel lines. The density and spacing of these lines can be varied to create different shades and textures. While you can use this technique to add character to your sketches and drawings, when shading with a more realistic intent, the hatching should be more uniform, try avoiding inconsistent line spacing as uneven lines can create black spots and undesired texture.

2. Cross-Hatching

Cross-hatching builds on the hatching technique by adding a second set of parallel lines that intersect the first set, creating a mesh-like pattern. This method can produce even more texture and deeper shadows. You can try different angles for interesting effects and even shade different areas at different angles to establish planes. Avoid too many intersecting lines as they can make the area look muddy.

3. Stippling

Stippling is a technique that uses small dots to create shading and texture. The density of the dots determines the darkness of the shaded area. You basically start with a few dots and gradually increase the density to achieve the desired shade. Keep the dots uniform in size for a smoother effect.

4. Scumbling

Scumbling involves creating a layer of small, scribbled marks to build up texture and shading. For this technique you make small, circular, or random marks on the paper, overlapping them to build up texture. Keep in mind that pressing too hard can create harsh lines that are difficult to blend.

Now that we’ve learned the basic shading techniques, let’s learn some of the most used blending techniques and their applications.

5. Layering

Layering is the best blending method, especially when trying to get professional results. This method consists of gradually applying multiple layers of graphite to build up deep, darker tones. This doesn’t mean applying excessive pressure to reach the deep tones, especially with hard pencils, but softly building up graphite layers with medium to soft pencils. It will require a lot of patience but once you get the gist of it you’ll get the best results without losing sharp edges or fine details.

6. Blending

Blending is a technique used to soften, blur and lighten graphite. Perfect to soften edges, blur backgrounds, work on skin and lighten some areas. There are several tools you can use for blending, including blending stumps, tortillons, paper towels and brushes. 

  • Blending Stumps: Blending stumps are compressed paper rolls, shaped into a point, used for blending and smudging graphite, charcoal and pastels. Blending stumps are great for creating soft transitions, blending edges and soft gradients. They come in different sizes and can be used to blend broad areas when held with an overhand grip, and to work on details when held as a pencil.
  • Tortillons: Tortillons are tightly rolls of paper, similar to blending stumps, but not as compressed nor soft. They are better for working on details as they have a sharp pointed tip, which is firmer and more precise than a blending stump. They are not as resistant and need to be replaced constantly as they can’t be cleaned.
  • Paper Towels: Paper towels are a great and very cost effective blending tools, you can roll them, shape them into a point, use them flat, etc. to achieve different results and blend broad and small areas. 
  • Brushes: Brushes are often used for soft, subtle blending. They can effectively remove harsh lines and blend large areas without adding additional graphite, which helps maintain a clean look. They are also used to spread the graphite and get very light values and uniform shading.

7. Burnishing

The burnishing technique consists of applying hard pressure.to get the darkest tonal values, however in graphite it has a different meaning.

Graphite paper has teeth, soft graphite pencils tend to lay on the upper parts of the paper’s tooth, while hard graphite pencils are able to reach down the lower layers of the tooth, filling up the blank spaces better than any soft pencil. 

The reason why soft graphite pencils like 4B and 6B are not fully able to reach deep blacks is due to the texture on the paper, which has yet to be fully filled and still has some white spaces. This can be easily solved by pressing heavily, however this also creates an undesired shiny, metallic finish, and can damage the paper if done incorrectly. The right way to approach burnishing with graphite pencils is using a hard pencil on top of a soft pencil, softly pressing only to push the graphite into the crevices of the paper’s tooth darkening the pencil’s value and smoothing any inconsistency while at it.

8. Gradient Practice

While this is not a blending technique, it is an important practice in graphite drawing and shading that will allow you to drastically improve the control you have over your pencils. 

Begin at the lightest point with very light pressure. Use loose, soft traces to avoid visible lines, as you move towards the darker area, gradually increase the pressure on your pencil. Work your way up and down until you get a smooth gradient. You might not get it on your first try but with practice you’ll be able to master this in no time.

Once you are able to create smooth gradients with pencils of different grades, try also playing with textures and creating gradients with them, that way you’ll be able to use them for shading smaller areas, adding texture and enhancing your work.

In the following techniques we will cover aspects of light and shadow. Understanding how light works is fundamental when drawing and shading with any medium, but is especially important for creating realistic drawings.  

9. Light Sources

The main light source in your composition is the one that defines where the highlights and the shadows will be. It is important that you find this light source early into your drawing stage. It does not matter if this light is coming from the sun or a lamp, the direction and intensity of this light will affect all aspects of your shading.

Think also of the secondary lights which will cast more, softer, and less defined shadows and highlights. These secondary sources can be light bouncing from nearby objects or other sources of light in the environment. These elements can be incorporated into your drawing to make it more complex and realistic.

10. Creating Realistic Shadows

When drawing shadows, begin with the cast shadows, which are the shadows of objects on other surfaces near them. These shadows should be the darkest at the base of the object and gradually fade away from the base. This gradient effect is useful in portraying the natural diffusion of light.

While “form” shadows are the shadows of the object itself, that surface of the object is away from the light source. These shadows should be less sharp and more blurred than cast shadows to accentuate the object’s volume. Focusing on these subtle distinctions can greatly help improve the realism of your drawing.

Highlights are important in capturing regions that fall under the influence of the light source. These highlights should be made using an eraser to remove graphite or a white colored pencil for the colored drawings. This way, the contrast between the highlights and shadows will make your object look more realistic and three-dimensional.

Integrate reflected lights into your shading to increase its complexity. This is light which is reflected from other objects near and illuminates your object to a small extent as compared to direct light. Adding this slight glow can help enhance the realism of the shading and make it look as if the shadows belong to the scene.

11. Contrast and Value

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a tone, in graphite drawing, values range from the lightest highlights to the darkest shadows. Understanding and controlling values is essential for depicting form, creating depth, and achieving a realistic representation of your subject.

To practice recognizing and using values create a value scale ranging from white (the paper) to the darkest mark your pencils can make. This scale will help you understand the range of values your pencils can produce.

Use a variety of graphite pencils (e.g., H, HB, B, 2B, 4B, 6B) to achieve different values. Harder pencils (H grades) produce lighter values, while softer pencils (B grades) produce darker values.

Contrast refers to the difference between light and dark areas in a drawing. High contrast can make elements of your drawing stand out, while low contrast can create a softer, more subtle effect. The effective use of contrast can enhance the three-dimensionality of your subject and draw the viewer’s attention to focal points in your art.

To effectively use contrast first determine the direction and intensity of your light source. This will guide where to place your darkest shadows and brightest highlights. Start always with the darkest areas, and balance areas of high contrast with areas of lower contrast to create a harmonious composition. Too much contrast can be jarring, while too little can make the drawing appear flat.

To add contrast and play with values in your graphite drawings:

  • Establish your darkest values first, but then build up values gradually by layering graphite. Start with light layers and progressively add darker layers to deepen shadows and enhance contrast. 
  • Use blending tools to smooth out transitions between different values only when necessary. Blending helps create a more realistic texture and softens harsh lines but over blending will make your drawing look muddy.
  • Carefully observe your subject to identify the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows. Use an eraser to lift graphite for highlights and apply more pressure with a softer pencil for deep shadows if needed. Ensure that highlights and shadows are placed consistently according to the light source.
  • Don’t neglect the midtones, as they are essential for creating a realistic range of values but are often forgotten. 


Mastering pencil shading techniques is essential for any artist aiming to create realistic and compelling drawings. By understanding and applying the principles of shading, such as the use of different pencil grades, shading techniques, and manipulating light and shadow, you can significantly enhance the quality of your work.

While the journey to mastering pencil shading requires practice, patience, and a keen eye for detail, by continuously refining these techniques, you’ll be able to create drawings that not only capture the viewer’s attention but also convey a sense of depth and realism that brings your art to life. Keep experimenting, stay dedicated, and most importantly, enjoy the process!


Scroll to Top