Creating a solid line structure for 3D lettering is essential, but what really brings it to life is how good you execute the shading.
Now before grabbing your pencil and starting to randomly color parts of your drawing, it’s important you understand some key principles about lights and shadows. It will help you master the art of shading, and define by yourself how to apply it on more and more complex compositions.
- Part 1: How To Make 3D Hand-Lettering 1/3 - Drawing the Lettering
- Part 2: How To Make 3D Hand-Lettering 2/3 - Creating the 3D Effect
- Part 3: How To Make 3D Hand-Lettering 3/3 - Shading the 3D Lettering
It’s not difficult to spot a lettering piece that’s been randomly shaded. Most of the time, it’s the result of someone direct referencing or replicating from memory, but on a different lettering piece. While this may be a good way to start, a batter way to experiment and progress is to actually understand what you’re doing.
What we see is defined by lights and shadows. It’s obvious we can’t see anything when immersed in total darkness, but we wouldn’t see anything more if everything around us was light. This means the world, the shapes, the colors we see are a result of how light and darkness interact with each other.
When light hits an object, it modulates the shadow on this object, depending on its shape. If you move that light source, the shadows will move as well.
So let’s imagine that you have a light source in your drawing. Actually, draw it on your paper. In my case, I made it come from the top right corner, and since we’re in a 3-dimensional space, I’ve decided it’s not really on the side, but actually facing the lettering.
Next, I’m going to draw arrows coming from the light source, and going to the lettering. This simulates the direction of the light, and shows what it’s going to hit first. This is very important, because it will allow us to decide what will be lighter and what will be darker. These are called values: by making some parts lighter and some other lighter, we create the illusion of light and shadow, and as a result, of 3-dimensional shape.
When light hits an object, the palette it creates can usually be divided in 5 values:
- The highlight, this is the area on the object that’s closest to the light. Because this is where the light hit first, this will be the lightest value (you can even leave it white). Depending on how big and how close the light is, the highlight will be more or less wide.
- The mid tone, this is what comes right after the highlight, and is slightly darker. The mid tone is going in the same way as the light source (it’s following the arrows) and it’s creating the transition between the highlight and the darker parts of the object.
- The core shadow is usually on the opposite side than the light. It’s the darkest part of the object.
- The reflected light modulates how dark the core shadow is. Because the light source doesn’t only hit the object, but also its surroundings (including the surface it’s sitting on), those surroundings are also reflecting in the object. This is why, unless your object is floating in space with no walls (such as a planet, for instance) the exact opposite area will never be totally dark, but slightly lighter than the core shadow.
- The cast shadow, which is a projection of the object on the surface it’s sitting on. Depending on how close the light source is, its size and its power and its angle, the cast shadow will be shorter or longer.
On our drawing, the light is coming from the top right corner, and from the front of the lettering. This means the front of the letter is going to get the most light (especially on the top right corner), while the back of the letter is going to be the darkest (especially on the bottom left corner).
Also, the cast shadow will be in the continuity of the light’s direction, starting from the back of the letter, leaning to the vanishing point.
The light source is hitting the front of the letter, so most of the front surface is white: that’s the highlight. Then, the mid tone is applied on the sides of the letter, and slightly graded to a darker value (the core shadow) down to the rear and the bottom left corner. Yet, a thin lighter line is added between the core shadow and the end of the letter, because the surface on which the letter is sitting is reflected in it: it’s the reflected light. Finally, the cast shadow is drawn from the base of the letter, towards the vanishing point. I graded it to show how progressive the shadow is, as it pulls away from its origin.
Different looks, different techniques
Blending is the most realistic shading method. You create light and dark areas by applying less or more pressure on your pencil as you shade your drawing. Seasoned artists can create perfect blending between different values live as they shade, by changing the exact right amount of pressure to create seamless transitions.
You can also blend areas with your finger after you’re done shading. I advise against doing it directly without a piece of tissue, because we always have a thin coat of grease on our fingers and it might ruin the drawing. Wrap a tissue around your finger, or if you want to be more precise, you can use a cotton bud.
If you’re not into shading, and you’re not afraid of spending hours on your drawing, you can give stippling a go. This method consists of shading with nothing but dots. The more dots, and the closer they are to each other, the darker it will look.
Stippling is very popular, because it gives grain to your piece, which can’t be obtained with blending. If you like texture in your work, this is definitely for you. And if you want to go one step further, try to do the entire piece with stippling. This means you shouldn’t use straight lines at all, but reproduce them with dots.
Hatching & cross-hatching
Now this is my favorite method. Hatching is pretty similar to stippling, but with parallel lines. The darker, the more lines and the closer they are to each other. This also creates a fantastic texture effect, similar to etching.
If you want to add more texture and more shadow variations, you can do more lines, perpendicular to the ones you’ve already created: that’s called cross-hatching. Some artists even add more than two layers, by changing the angle.
I strongly suggest you make your hatching lines thinner than the lines of your drawing. Picking different line weights will create a more subtle effect and will keep your shading to look too dark.
Who said shading has to be seamless? For a bolder effect, you can opt for the solid color technique. Instead of trying to blend different values by applying progressive pressure, decreasing the number of dots or the amount of lines, you can create solid areas of different colors to simulate the variations in shadows.
The more areas of different colors the finer it will look, but you can definitely decide to restrain yourself to a limited number of colors for a more vintage effect. This method is particularly suited when you’re using paint, in which case pen pressure is irrelevant.