Coloring 101: One Pencil Shading

First, let me say that colouring does not require shading. This hobby that has suddenly become so trendy has done so because it is relaxing. When you are happily colouring and totally engaged in the act of choosing colours and staying in the lines, your mind and body enter a different state. To colour with shading is to enter a whole new arena which some people enjoy and others find stressful.

If you feel confident in your colour choices but you look at pages by other colourists and see more depth that you want to achieve, then this article is for you.

Shading doesn’t need to be stressful.

There are three elements which will affect the success of your shading; the products you use (the actual pencil you choose and the paper you are colouring), the mechanics (your hand movements) and light theory (choosing where to make shadows).


Coloured pencils come in a variety of quality. Generally, the more you pay for a pencil, the better the quality and the better the results. However, there are plenty of mid to low range pencils on the market which give good results. See the table below for a run down on some brands I have used and their results. While I have 28 years of experience, this list is only my opinion.

Brand Price Range Softness Personal Results
Faber Castel low soft Very good
Smiggle low Very hard poor
Crayola low medium good
Lyra mid medium good
Faber Castel Polychromos high Very soft excellent
Derwent water colours high Very soft excellent
Progresso Aquarell high Very soft excellent

Papers come in varying quality too. Generally, the rougher a paper is, the better the pencil will grab on to the paper. Usually we don’t have a choice about the paper that colour books are printed on. Most high end books like Enchanted Forest, the Dover Creative Series and Angie Grace books (for example) are printed on paper that is fine for pencil shading. Books with thinner paper are still great to colour. Just be aware that you might not get the shading result you are after and it isn’t anything you are doing … just poor quality paper.

If you have a few different brands, try the exercise below and record your results.

The shade of the pencil itself will also determine how well you can shade with it. A lighter will toned pencil will not produce as many variations of colour as a darker tone. For example, a pencil that is pale blue in colour will not produce as much variation as a deep rich red pencil.


When you first began to colour with pencils, your hand/ eye co–ordination was concentrated on staying in the lines and laying down a nice even colour. It didn’t come naturally and it took some time and practice to master the movement.

The mechanics of shading are no different to staying in the lines. The only thing you need to change is your pressure. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to colour with a side to side motion, or in circles. The principal is still the same.

The heavier you press with a pencil, the darker the line will come out.

Learning how heavy to press for the shade you want is simply a matter of practice.

Try the following exercise. (It is best to read all the directions before you start.)

  1. Draw three squares.
  2. Colour the squares to make three different shades.
  3. Start with the middle box and colour with your normal pressure.
  4. Use the same pencil to colour the first box, but press more lightly to make a lighter shade.
  5. Use the same pencil to colour in the last box, but press quite heavily to make a deeper (or darker) shade.

3-shadesYou have created 3 values of shade — light, medium and dark. The more you practice, the more values you will be able to create.

Try drawing 5 squares and see if you can make each square a different value from light to dark.

With a good pencil you can also get different values by going over an area more than once. Here is another exercise to practice.

  1. Draw three squares.
  2. Colour the first box with normal pressure.
  3. With the same pencil, colour the second box with normal pressure and then go over the same area again to increase the value (darkness) of the shade.
  4. With the same pencil, colour the last box with normal pressure, then go over the same area with a heavier pressure.

Compare your results with the first time you tried it. You should see more shades (or values) starting to appear in your work.

Light Theory

Shading in pictures is pleasing to us as it creates a new dimension. The colouring goes from a flat two dimensional image to a three dimensional image with depth.

The depth is created by the darker values fooling our mind into thinking there is shadow there. And for there to be a shadow … there needs to be a light source.

Very talented artists can create shading from more than one light source (for example a lamp and an overhead light), reflected light (from water or white surfaces) and reflected colours. But for our colouring books, one light source is usually sufficient to create some interest.

Image 1 – Light sources

Deciding WHERE to put the shadow, or darker value often confuses beginners. The good news is, that even if you get the light source wrong, adding shading into your colourings will still give it depth and interest.

In the case of colouring books, you can often just ‘fudge’ the shadows by adding darker values where lines meet to create separate areas. The variation of colours still create interest in your work and added dimension. Some designs will have clues on where to add shadow, such a creases in clothing.

Image 1.1 – Light source on a leaf

But if you want a more realistic outcome, just choose a spot for the sun to sit.

If the sun is in the top right corner of the page, the bottom left of areas will be darker. If the sun is in the top left corner, then the bottom right of areas will be darker. And if you choose to put the sun right over head (though this is generally less pleasing to our eye), the bottom of each area will be darker. (See Images 1 and 1.1.)

Image 2 – Shading overlapping objects

There are exceptions to this of course. Generally you should just try to work out what is on top. For example, a flower on top of a leaf. By adding shows (a darker shade by pressing harder) it will appear that the flower pops forward out of the paper, giving the image depth. (See Image 2.)

For abstract drawings and patterns you can choose what is on top. You could play around with the light source coming from multiple directions at once. (See Image 3.)

In areas where there is direct light, you might even choose to leave the paper white to show shine. (See the top of the leaf in Image 1.1.)

Image 3 – Shading abstract images

To sum things up, shading doesn’t need to be feared. It is simply a matter of adding some more pressure to your movement and mostly following the lines of the drawing. It will become quite natural with practice. Just get in there and give it a go!

Jenni has created a video on YouTube that runs through the exercise and explanations above.

If you have any questions or comments about this article or video, please don’t hesitate to contact me.