No Really, That's How I Do It  

Adding the Third Dimension


By Karen Bell-Brugger

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 17, Issue 3

My version of meditation is shading – the Zen of creating form out of flat paper. A good drawing without shading may be beautiful, but it will always be flat. Add good shading and it becomes 3-dimensional. Add great shading and it leaps off the paper. Leonardo da Vinci writes about shading: “Every visible body is surrounded by light and shade…Light is the chaser away of darkness. Shade is the obstruction of light…light and shade blend without strokes – looking like smoke.” Many of us let our fear of ruining that nice drawing keep us from using bold lights and darks and beautiful in-betweens. The way to climb over these fears is to build up a scaffold of techniques and then practice them.


I’ll start with my materials – quite an ordinary list, with a few eccentricities thrown in. Warning, I’m an equipment junkie. I’ve never met a tool I didn’t buy.

  • Pencils: 2mm mechanical lead holders from a variety of manufacturers. I label them with white tape and the lead number, from 3H to 6B, and a .3mm holder with H or F leads. Lyra Rembrandt carbon pencils, 308/1 through 308/5, are used for intense darks. These are not the same as the carbon pencils used for carbon dust. You may substitute with Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth “Gioconda” Negro 8815/1.
  • Sharpener: A barrel sharpener with ‘cigarette filter’ for the 2mm leads, and fine sandpaper, 220 grit or finer. The ‘cigarette filter’ is used to clean graphite dust off the sharpened leads.
  • Erasers: Click, vinyl (both can be shaped by trimming with a blade), and a kneaded eraser.
  • Brushes: Synthetic angle brushes, approximately 1/8th inch and 1/4th inch. I also have one that’s 1/20th inch for tiny areas, because it’s really cool!
  • Miscellaneous bits: Japanese Hake brushes to clean my drawing; the brushes are white, but can be washed.
  • Plexiglas drawing bridge to protect the surface of my drawing.
  • Super Film micron abrasive film from Mona Lisa Products’
  • Paper: Hot pressed watercolor paper, predominately Arches sheets or pads, 90- or 140# paper slightly off-white color. Thinner paper has a harder surface.


First thing I do is sand my paper. I love Arches but it has tiny fibers, or ‘hairs’, projecting from its surface. These little guys grab graphite and create dark pinpoints, or pop up and expose a bare spot. I cut a piece of Super Film, about 2x3”. Holding the film flat under my extended fingers and using very gentle pressure to avoid burnishing, I sand in small continuous circular strokes over the entire surface of the paper. I give the paper a quarter turn and repeat the sanding.

Using a clean brush or soft cloth, wipe the surface to remove the knocked off fibers. After this, I transfer my drawing.

I tend to get lost in the process, so started using brushes to apply my first layer of graphite. This gives a nice even layer to start working with and speeds up the process for me – a bit of a kick-start. I use brushes instead of blending stumps because they create a smoother layer for me. I use angled brushes because they give me more control in tight areas with their sharp angled point.

I pick up graphite dust with the brush either from the barrel sharpener’s ‘cigarette filter’ or from dust I’ve made on a piece of 220 grit (or higher) sandpaper, (don’t use the ‘Super Film’ for this).

To pick up dust from the ‘cigarette filter’, I simply stroke the brush over the surface of the filter, where the dust has accumulated after I sharpen and clean the lead of my 2mm pencils. To make graphite dust on the 220 grit sandpaper, I rub the side of a graphite pencil lead back and forth across the sandpaper until I’ve deposited a visible layer. I usually use a medium range pencil, an H or B for this. I just stroke the brush over this to pick up the graphite dust.

Then on a piece of scrap paper, I test to insure the graphite won’t be too dark. If it’s OK, I’ll begin shading, starting in the areas that will be the darkest, and working out from there – avoiding any highlight areas. I’m using gentle circular brush strokes.

From this layer, I proceed to work with my pencils. I utilize hatch, cross hatch, and oval strokes, in no particular order. Starting in the deepest shade, I work out to the lightest. I start with the harder leads, work up to softer for the darkest areas. I practice on a scrap paper going from heavy pressure to ‘feather’ pressure with my leads.

Used judiciously, a small area of intense dark in the deepest shade makes everything more exciting. If the paper has reached the point where it won’t accept more graphite, or a high numbered B pencil isn’t doing the trick, I’ll use one of my Lyra Rembrandt carbon pencils. This will always be in a small area – the inner top of a crease or the deepest part of an overlap, for example.

To smooth my shading transitions (to create da Vinci’s ‘smoke’), I go back with the brushes, but no added graphite, and gently work them. I also continue to reinforce my ‘border’ lines – the lines that define adjacent shapes; lines between clustered grapes, for example. These are rarely left as actual lines, but are blended to the darkness of the line to define a separate area.

I work back and forth between shade and light. Using the erasers, I’ll refine my highlights or lighten the in-between areas. For a clean bright spotlight, I go in with the Click or vinyl eraser. For a more muted highlight, use a kneaded eraser. Once again, I go in with my brushes to blend the edges of lightened areas back into adjacent shading.

Now, I take my piece to a mirror and check it out through its reflection. This gives more information about what needs correction than hours of gazing at the work itself. I return to adding and subtracting. I keep working until I’m satisfied. Since I’m never satisfied, I keep working. I have good artist friends who grab me by the shoulders, stare into my eyes, and yell, “Stop now!”

When teaching shading to people new to the subject, I have a few tools to help. First, I use photos taken by professional photographers who know the value of dramatic lighting such as a low sun angle with elongated shadows. With these I train the students to locate the light source and how it affects the objects in its path. I also use a box with a single light to isolate an object from more than one source.

My ultimate goal is for the students to know where light and shade fall on an object without the actual benefit of a closed single source environment. Finally, I have them transfer and shade increasingly complex templates, varying the source of light until shading for form becomes instinct – or they start plotting mutiny! Strong 3-dimensionality depends on understanding the value of values!

  • Sanding the Arches 140# paper using a cut piece of the ‘Super Film’.
  • Sources for picking up graphite dust with the angled brush.
  • Demo of graphite dust application with an angled brush to a transfer – the transfer lines have been darkened to make them show up better in the photo.
  • Example of a small area of intense dark made with a Lyra Rembrandt carbon 308 pencil.
  • Example of shading to the line – making the line disappear into the shading.
  • A crop of the scan done on the actual drawing when it neared completion.
  • Examples of the templates I use in my shading class.