Drawing Geometric Shapes and Adding Dimension with Shadows

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One of the best methods to use when you're new to drawing is to see things as simple geometric shapes. Almost everything can be broken down, or abstracted, into circles, squares, and triangles. When these flat shapes get three-dimensional form, they become spheres and cylinders, cubes, and pyramids.

When I start talking about drawing, everyone immediately says, "I can't draw a straight line." Who cares? Straight is boring. There aren't any straight lines in any of my paintings. Another stereotype I hear is, "I can only draw a stick figure." To which I reply, "Good!" That's exactly the right attitude for this exercise.

Draw a bunch of items, but reduce them into circles, lines, squares, triangles, and simplified shapes — much like a stick figure. See the shapes first. The details are just icing on the cake. See Figure 8-1 as an example.

Check perfection at the door for this part. Think loose and free, and scribble for this type of drawing. No erasers allowed.

Simplifying a complex shape into familiar geometric shapes makes it easier to see and therefore easier to duplicate with a drawing. Figure 8-1 shows two prairie dog drawings that begin with geometric shapes.

Figure 8-1:

Inanimate geometric shapes become lively prairie dogs.

Figure 8-1:

Inanimate geometric shapes become lively prairie dogs.

Drawings With Geometric Shapes

Seeing light and shadow

Lines create shapes: circles, squares, and triangles. When you add values in the correct places in the form of shadows and highlights, the geometric shapes take on the illusion of three dimensions. The thing that separates a flat circle from a round sphere is light and shadow. The key to adding dimension is understanding shadows.

The light that creates shadows and highlights comes from something: the sun, artificial light, a candle. The source of the light is called — surprise! — the light source. Pay attention to the light source when you're drawing, especially when you're indicating shadows. Multiple light sources are possible, but single light sources make for a more dramatic painting.

The highlights and shadows depend on whether the surface is shiny or dull — its reflectivity — the intensity of the light source, and the shape of the surface itself. The shadows and highlights on a flat surface, like a cube, are different than those on a curved surface, like a sphere or cylinder. But flat and curved surfaces are mostly light and shadow, and have few, if any, parts unaffected by the light source. The size of a shadow depends on the object and the light source.

All objects have some combination of highlights, reflected light, core shadows, cast shadows, and crevice dark:

l Highlight: This is the area of lightest shadow. It's where the light first strikes the shape and the closest point to the light source.

The highlight follows the shape of the object. In the drawings in the following sections, notice the highlight is round on the sphere, a whole side plane on the cube and pyramid, and runs the length of the tube on the cylinder.

l Reflected light: Light can bounce off other sources and land back on an object. If it bounces back or is reflected, the light is slightly dimmer than the original light.

l Cast shadow: The object blocks light and casts a shadow where light is prevented from illuminating the surface upon which the object sits. The cast shadow changes shape with the angle of the light source and its distance from the object.

Experiment with a flashlight and a baseball to see the variety of oval cast shadows you can create. The cast shadow mirrors the object's shape and follows the surface's contours, if there are any (wrinkles in fabric or hills in snow).

The light source's height and angle above the object determines how long the cast shadow is. If you're outdoors, the sun is your light source, and the cast shadow will change by time of day. Shadows created by the sun are longer in the morning and evening, so a low angle of light elongates the shadows.

l Core shadow: The darkest area of shadow is the place farthest from the light but without any reflected light bounced into it. The core shadow follows the contour of the shape. A sphere's core shadow is crescent shaped, and a cylinder's is a vertical flat strip along the tube.

Flat surfaces may not have a core shadow. Instead they may have a different value to each plane or side.

l Crevice dark: The object sits on a surface, and where the object meets the surface is a line of deep dark shadow that I call the crevice dark, because a crevice is a deep narrow edge or opening that light can't reach.

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Choosing your drawing utensil

When you're ready to start drawing, I say use a pencil. You've been using a pencil since before kindergarten, and you probably feel pretty comfortable with one.

Drawing pencils come in different values from H to B: Think of H as hard; think of B as black. The pencils are numbered from 2 to 8. The higher the number, the more the pencil relates to the quality of hardness or blackness. An 8B pencil draws very black. An HB pencil (no numbers) is right in the middle and is similar to the No. 2 pencil you used to take tests in school. As the pencils get toward higher B numbers, the lead gets softer and larger around. Conversely the larger the number of H pencil, the harder the lead; therefore, the lighter the drawn line and the smaller around the diameter.

It's just a habit to use pencil when talking about drawing. You can also use watercolor paint to make your drawings, though using a brush may be a little more foreign. Or you can go middle of the road and use a watercolor pencil. Water-color pencils combine the best of both worlds. Watercolor pencils come in a rainbow of colors, and you use them as you do colored pencils, but they have an added bonus: You can blend with a brush and water. You can soften lines by applying water. You can even erase lines if you add enough water and rub with a brush until the line disappears.

By understanding the theory of shadow, you can use it to suggest volume on a flat paper surface.

^t From circles to spheres

Start with a loosening-up exercise:

1. Draw a circle.

It doesn't matter if the circle is neat. It can be a loop with incomplete starts and stops. Scribble till you get a circle from many circular lines defining the shape.

To loosen up, try drawing circles from each joint: wrist, elbow, shoulder. You may have to stand to get far enough away from the paper to use your shoulder.

2. After you have a circle you like (Figure 8-2a), add the correct shadows, as shown in Figure 8-2b.

Start with the lightest touch and make the light shadow surrounding the highlight. As you move down toward the core shadow, put more pressure on your pencil for a darker mark. You can also lay the pencil on its side to use the widest area for faster coverage. Ease up on the value as you reach the reflected light area. There is a crevice dark where the object touches the surface. The cast shadow has a reflected light bouncing back from the sphere, so even it has some variation in value.

Figure 8-2:

From a circle to a sphere by shading.

Figure 8-2:

From a circle to a sphere by shading.

Watercolor Cube

From a square to a cube

Okay, maybe you need a straight line every once in a while. If you want really straight lines, there's nothing wrong with using a ruler. For now, you don't need anything so precise. Just make a square — and in case you've forgotten, all four sides of a square are the same length — and follow these steps to transform a square into a cube:

1. Draw a square, then draw a second square about the same size that overlaps the first about half the width beside and half the length above (see Figure 8-3a).

Figure 8-3:

With a little work and some shadows, a square becomes a cube.


Connect the four corners of the two squares by drawing straight lines between them (refer to Figure 8-3b).

You now have a cube.

Start shadowing the cube, making a light, medium, and dark side (refer to Figure 8-3c).

Because you don't see the back of the cube, you have only three sides to worry about.

The secret to shadowing a cube is to keep in mind that each side is a different value. For the one in Figure 8-3c, rather than erasing the part of the square behind the first square, just make that side the darkest and shade it in dark. Pick the right side for a medium value and leave the top white or light. All you need now is a cast shadow. Because the light is on top and the medium side is to the right, that dictates that the light source is coming from the top and a little right, so the cast shadow is to the left.

The angle of the light and where it originates from dictate where the cast shadow falls. I shined a light on a box. By moving the light, the cast shadow changes shape. In Figure 8-3c, most of the shadow's edges are parallel to the object's edges, but some are different. The light sneaks around the edge and makes a new angle at the bottom left corner. The cast shadow contains some light that bounces off the object, so make a graded value from light near the object to darker as the shadow gets farther away from the object. Set up a similar box-and-light experiment to observe light and shadow.

From a triangle to a pyramid

A pyramid is essentially half a cube. It has a square base and a pointed top. It's easier to draw than a cube because it has fewer sides. To make the transformation:

1. Draw a triangle (see Figure 8-4a).

2. Make another triangle, using one of the legs of the first triangle as the longest leg of the second triangle (see Figure 8-4b).

From the top of the first triangle draw a line that angles out a bit to one side and ends higher than the base of the first triangle. Connect that line to the bottom corner of the first triangle with a straight line.

Figure 8-4:

Triangle to pyramid using shadow.

Figure 8-4:

Triangle to pyramid using shadow.

Drawing Dark Shadows Corners

3. Add your shadowing (see Figure 8-4c).

Only two sides show in a pyramid — a light side and a dark side — as shown in Figure 8-4c. The cast shadow slants away from the dark side.

From circle to cylinder

Another important shape is the cylinder or tube. Cylinder shapes make arms and legs, tree trunks, watering can spouts, chimneys, and oodles of objects you'll encounter on your painting journey.

To make a cylinder:

To make a cylinder:

1. Draw two ovals, as shown in Figure 8-5a.

Circles work as well; use whichever one you prefer.

Figure 8-5:

Cylinder shadows.

2. Connect the ovals with straight lines (see Figure 8-5b).

The shadows become lines the length of the tube rather than spots like on the sphere.

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