Quick and easy shading

It’s surprisingly easy to add depth and dimension to your simple flat-colored illustrations, even without using gradients. In this tutorial we’re going to show you some fast and simple tricks on how to subtly shade objects.

Getting Started

Here is our starting point. We’ve already drawn our character, a young woman reclining in a bathtub:


Tip: Not sure how to create a tiled wall like the one in the background? Easy! Check out the first few steps in this tutorial. We’ve actually reused the exact same tiles in this tutorial!

Except for the marble wall tiles, this illustration is looking pretty unfinished. There’s nothing to suggest dimension, just flat boring shapes! Let’s get started on adding a little character.

Adding Shading to the Bathtub

We’ll start with the bathtub. It’s drawn in 2 shapes, the lip of the tub and then the body:


Let’s add a highlight to the lip of the tub. Select the shape with your Direct Select arrow (black arrow) and copy-paste it in front of itself (Command-C Command-F on a Mac, or Control-C Control-F on a PC). Hit Command-F (Mac) or Control-F one more time to paste yet another copy of the shape in front of itself: You should now have 3 shapes on top of each other.

Click on the top shape with your black arrow and hit the ‘down’ arrow button on your keyboard a bit to offset the shape like so:


Now, with this shape selected, hold down ‘Shift’ on your keyboard and click on one of the original lip shapes underneath so that both are selected. In your Pathfinder palette, click on the ‘Minus Front’ button (known as ‘Subtract From Shape Area’ in Illustrator CS3 and earlier):


Voila! This gives us a nice clean highlight for the lip of the tub. We’ll color it white. Now let’s repeat the above steps, but this time move your third tub lip shape up to create a shadow along the bottom of the lip. Here’s where we’re at so far (shown with the background layers turned on so that you can easily see the white highlight along the top of the tub):


Already we’re starting to get a sense of volume that was lacking in our original drawing. Now we’ll work on doing the same thing with our tub base.

Pathfinder: Subtract From Shape Area

We’ll start with a highlight. Select the tub base, and copy-paste it in front of itself twice (Command-C Command-F on a Mac, or Control-C Control-F on a PC). Move the top shape a few points to the right using your direction arrows on your keyboard, then select the next shape down as well as your offset shape. Use the Pathfinder’s ‘Minus Front’ button again to create your highlight shape, which we’ve colored white here:


Repeat these steps but this time, move your uppermost shape a few points up and a bit to the left to create a shadow:


Extra Shading to Create Volume

Now you’re getting the hang of it! Since our tub is presumably made of porcelain (which has a smooth glossy finish), we think it needs one more highlight. We’ll select our tub base highlight, copy and past it in front of itself, then move it up and to the right a little. We’ll color it a pale blue:


For a tiny bit more depth we’ll also take the whole tub base shape and shrink it, then color it a slightly paler blue. To do this, select your base shape again, copy paste it in front of itself, then hover the direct selection arrow over the corner of the shape.

Once your black arrow cursor turns into a little ‘<–>’ symbol, click and drag towards the middle of the shape while holding down ‘Option’ and ‘Shift’. This will resize your shape centrally while keeping the proportions (not skewing it vertically or horizontally). Here’s what we’ve ended up with:


Almost done with our tub. Let’s add a drop shadow underneath the lip so that it stands out more clearly from the tub base. Select both the lip and the base shapes:


Copy and paste them in front of themselves again. Select the lip shape and move it down a few points using your direction arrows on your keyboard:


Now select the tub base and use Pathfinder’s ‘Intersect’ button to trim off all the areas where the two shapes aren’t overlapping. Move this shape backwards (Command-[ on Mac or Control-[ on PC and give it a nice darker blue coloring like so:


One last thing! See how the highlights on the tub’s base are now overlapping the new shadow we’ve placed underneath the lip of the tub? To create a little realism, let’s do the following. Select the shadow under the lip and one of the highlights (we’ll start with the darker blue highlight). Copy and paste these shapes in front of themselves:


Pathfinder: Intersect Shape Area

Now use Pathfinder’s ‘Intersect’ tool again and color the resulting shape a shade of blue slightly darker than the rest of the highlight. Repeat with your other tub base’s highlight and you’ll get something like this:


Drawing the Claw Feet of the Tub

Now onto the tub’s feet. We’ve drawn our feet using several rounded rectangles and curved shapes so it resembles a classic brass clawfoot. We’ve used the exact same copy-paste in front-Pathfinder steps from before to add shading to our shapes.

Here is a side by side showing the base shapes of the foot, and the shapes after we’ve applied shadows and highlights (we figured we’d skip the step-by-step instructions here because you’re likely getting bored of reading the same steps over and over! If you want a run through please contact me and I’ll write one up):


Here’s how the claw feet are looking on the tub:


Adding Shading to the Woman

Now for our bathing beauty. She’s sitting in a bubble bath:


Tip: You could draw each individual circle for the bubble bath, or try using a custom scatter brush to save time! For more information on how to create your own scatter brush, check out this tutorial.

As you can see, we’ve run into a bit of a problem: Since our bubbles are white, you can’t see the highlight on the lip of the tub anymore! So, let’s select our bubbles, copy and paste them in front of themselves, then move them down a little and color them a light blue. This will help ‘pop’ out the highlight on the lip:


Now let’s add shading to our girl. We’re going to use exactly the same method we did to shade the tub. We’ll add a highlight to her face and leg by selecting each shape (one at a time), copying and pasting it in front of itself twice, then offsetting the uppermost shape slightly.

Select the offset shape as well as the shape immediately underneath it and use Pathfinder’s ‘Minus Front’ button to trim away the excess objects. Color these highlights a few shades lighter than her skin:


Repeat these steps to create a shadow on the underside of her leg:


The leg is still looking a bit flat. So, we’ll add one more level of shading. Hit ‘P’ on your keyboard to bring up your pen tool. We’ll draw a nice curvy shape that matches the curves of her leg. Don’t worry about matching your line up to her actual leg, we’ll be using the Pathfinder to trim away the excess of this shape shortly:


Select the leg shape and copy-paste it in front of itself. While holding down ‘Shift’, click on the new shape so that both are selected. Use the Pathfinder’s ‘Intersect’ function to trim the shape, and color it a skin tone halfway between the leg and the shadow:


Finishing Touches

Almost done! We’ll use our usual copy-paste and Pathfinder trick to add some highlights and shadows to her face and hair. And don’t forget to add a drop shadow underneath the bathtub!

Here is our final illustration!


> Purchase this file on iStockphoto.com

© 2009 Jennifer Borton


4 thoughts on “Quick and easy shading

  1. B says:

    This was awesome and perfect for me, thanks!

  2. Jay says:

    Hello. I left art and drawing since High School and never really got the chance to learn more about shading – Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows. I’ve got one question: How do we know where the light would bounce in an object? How do we know exactly where it would hit, where the shadow perfectly fits, and so on? It is something intrinsic? I mean, using our imagination, or do we have a rule we can follow? Thanks so much!

    • bortonia says:

      Hi Jay, good question! It all starts with observation, then learning to mimic what we see around us. From there you can start adding your own ‘twists’ and tweaking your lighting to suit your own eye. There are a million tutorials out there, here’s a quick search for ‘Shading techniques’: http://bit.ly/1lFnx1g and I’m sure you can find tons others using other search terms. The key thing is to keep practicing and pushing yourself by experimenting with less contrast, more contrast, and so on. Eventually you’ll find something that works with your own style. I hope this helps!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice! You make it all look so easy.Thank you!

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