How to Shade in Photoshop

Learning to shade or add shadows in Photoshop is an essential skill for the digital artist. As you know, your art will look flat and unrealistic without a few well-placed shadows. 

Hello! I’m Cara and if you’ve spent any time with me here on Photoshop Buzz, you know that I’m a photographer and my forte is image editing. But today, we’re going to take a slight detour from image editing for those of you interested in graphic design or drawing in Photoshop. 

So fasten your seatbelts and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times as I show you the 5 essential steps to shade in Photoshop!

Note: I use the Windows version of Photoshop. If you are using a Mac, the workspace will look slightly different from the screenshots displayed here.

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Step 1: Pick a Color

I will be the first to admit, I’m not good at drawing. So for this demonstration, I’ve downloaded this graphic from Canva. 

The artist has already shaded parts of her drawing as any good artist would, so we’ll just practice deepening the shadows in this case. 

The first step is to pick your color. A beginner’s mistake is to assume that all shadows are dark gray or black. If you’ve unsuccessfully tried shading your graphics before, this may have been where you went wrong.

Shadows actually carry a hint of color. In an image, the color is affected by the elements in the surrounding area, as well as the type of light that is striking the object. 

The good news is that Photoshop makes it easy to figure out what color to use when shading. Let’s select the Eyedropper Tool from the toolbar on the left.

Your cursor will turn into a little eyedropper-looking icon. Up in the Options bar, you’ll see that you can select the Sample Size. It’s talking about pixels there, so a 3 by 3 average is a box of 9 pixels which Photoshop will blend together and select the color. 

Choose the sample size that works for your graphic and hover over the area you would like to shade. Click to select the color. A circle will appear around your cursor, showing you the color you are selecting. 

The color will be set as your Foreground color, which shows at the bottom of the toolbar on the left. Double-click on the little box to open the Color Picker. 

In this panel, you can select a slightly darker or lighter version of the color you want to use. Yep, Photoshop allows complete control over your shading color. Isn’t that handy?

Step 2: Pick a Brush

Once you have your color set, you’ll want to choose your brush tip. Select the Brush tool from the toolbar on the left.

Up in the Options bar, click the dropdown arrow next to the brush tip preview to access your Photoshop brushes. You’ll find a list of different brush tips. There are quite a few that come with Photoshop, as well as I have downloaded some and made some of my own.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to stick with a basic round brush for this example. But you can choose any brush you like that will work for your project. 

Step 3: Choose Your Settings

Now you need to look at the settings you’ll use to shade your project. Choosing the correct settings is just as important as picking the right brush tip and color. 

Generally, for shading, you’ll work with a softer brush. Unless you’re creating a hard, harsh shadow, you won’t want a distinct line along the edges of your shading. Bring the Hardness slider down to a lower percentage or even 0%.

You can set the size of your brush with the Size slider. 

However, it’s helpful to know how to change the brush size on the fly. It’s a pain in the neck to keep coming up here every time you want to change the brush size. Make your brush bigger with the ] right bracket key and smaller with the left bracket key. 

To further refine the stroke, move to the right in the Options bar to Opacity and Flow.

Using a lower Opacity allows more of the underlying image to peek through. Using a lower Flow means that less color will be applied with each stroke. Play with these settings a little to better understand how they work.

If you’re using a mouse, you’ll have to pause your work to come up and change these settings. If you’re using a graphics pad and pen, you have a more fluid option for changing these settings. You can set them to be controlled by pen pressure. 

Step 4: Set the Blend Mode

Finally, you’ll want to change the blend mode. This will allow your shading work to blend more seamlessly as well as allow the project underneath to peek through. For darker areas, you’ll usually use Multiply. Lighter areas may work better with Screen.

You can always play with this a little to find what works best for your project.

Step 5: Paint!

Now you’re finally ready to start painting! Take the cursor and paint over the areas of your project you would like to shade. You may find that your settings are still too harsh. You can always undo your work and readjust the settings until you get the look you want.

It’ll take a little practice to develop a smooth flow. But, once you do, you’ll be a shading fiend. I bet you’ll make all sorts of amazing things! 

Curious to learn more about sketching or drawing in Photoshop? Check out this article on sketching with Photoshop brushes!

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