The Shadow Pattern | My Step One

Whether You Are:

  •          Using a photo reference or working from life--- 

  •          Creating a likeness to an observable subject or building a realistic, yet conceptual form --

  •          Using dry media or working with paints--


A Shadow Pattern can be used as an important building block when establishing proportions and constructing form. Not sure what a shadow pattern is?  Well, let’s look at this apple:

In this picture of an apple, what is instantly observable? We have a three-quarters lighting scenario…. We have a nice cast shadow, and an extremely bright specular highlight. You might be able to point out the core shadow, attached shadow accent, yadayadayada. But what and where is the shadow pattern?

Now squint at the apple.  What do you see?


When squinting at the apple, you may notice that the small details are no longer observable. The cast shadow and that crescent-shaped shadow on the apple seem to merge together. Lights meld with lights, and darks join with other darks.

These two masses of value are often referred to as the “light pattern” and the “shadow pattern”, consecutively. Together, the two interlocking patterns can be referred to as a Notan.

  A strong term I’ve often heard artists use to describe the two interlocking patterns of light and dark/shadow) together is: The Notan... Here is the actual definition from Merriam Webster.

A strong term I’ve often heard artists use to describe the two interlocking patterns of light and dark/shadow) together is: The Notan... Here is the actual definition from Merriam Webster.


So let's take a look at this graphic.

Here is a great example of a notan/ shadow pattern that successfully describes a portrait. We can somewhat make out the portrait's eyes, nose, hair, etc. 

With the information we have, we could say with a degree of certainty, that it is Edgar Allen Poe. 




Now that you can identify a shadow pattern and a light pattern, next comes the tricky step: trying to replicate one.


To the best of your abilities, try to replicate the shadow pattern of your subject, creating only one value mass. The light pattern will be your drawing/painting surface. Take a look at my video timelapse, below, before you start, found here:

If you want to follow along with this exercise, feel free to print out the image of the apple found through this link on the left. 

Helpful Tips:

1.       Take a step back!

Sometimes viewing your artwork from a few steps back will help you identify issues you were not aware of, up close. When working from a life-model, I like standing at my easel for just this reason alone.

2.       Squint, Compare, Work, Repeat.

If you are focusing on the shadow pattern one on round of squinting, focus on the light pattern in the next round. Flip-flop the negative space.

3.       Don’t listen to that little Shia LeBeof voice in your head!

DO NOT “Just Do It!” A lot of people are plagued with conceptual ideas while working. They are tempted to act on them. These ideas might not make your dreams come true. Throw out what you know about facial planes, Andrew Loomis’s rules of the thumbs, and all that other brain-clutter. Think about every mark you put down and how it works towards the goal of this exercise: one cleanly defined value mass on top of your work surface.

4.       Start with a size in mind.

When starting an observational work, some artists like to create a perimeter envelope for their shadow pattern to lie in - before really diving in.  An envelope is useful to establish broad proportions. Do you want your apple to be the size of a penny, or the size of a paper plate?

Personally, I do not like using a fully-developed, initial envelope. Instead, I put little marks on my drawing surface to note my desired height and corresponding width. If I find these marks to be incorrect during the shadow pattern build, I can move them easily. 


                Within the first year of studying at Ani Art Academy Waichulis, I was drawing shadow patterns without really knowing what one was. I didn't label things. There is a good chance I heard the term multiple times, but hey- I had braces still!  The concept of a shadow pattern didn't really hit home until later on in my studies, when I started taking portraiture seriously.  


One of the very first exercises found in the Language of Drawing Program, Drawing a Form Box from life, is a good example of, unbeknownst to me, the early use of a shadow pattern. Here is the finish work , from back in the day.


                Later on in 2014, my teacher, Anthony Waichulis, started creating “Notan” Portrait Assignments, and they were mandatory for a short period of time in the studio. From these printouts I went further, and branched out to copying shadow patterns off the covers of magazines. I started pausing movies for quick sketch studies, and - more often than I want to admit- awkwardly squinted people down in public to analyze how light fell on their face.


     I found I was having difficulty with drawing portraits from life (3D) over using a photo reference. It is a big jump between working from a black and white, 2D reference source- to a real-life, colorful, moving, and blinking model!** To bridge this gap, I went through a phase of sketching the shadow patterns of white portrait casts.  You can see an example here.

     And these notan/ shadow pattern/ whatever-you-want-to-call-them exercises did not just help me with portraiture. I also saw a dramatic improvement in my likenesses of still-lifes.


If done correctly and practiced often, this short exercise could help you:

  • Avoid some unwanted conceptual ideas influencing your work. 
  • Prepare a nice, proportional structure for a finish artwork.

Replicating shadow patterns has taught me a lot about form. There is no doubt in my mind I will continue to learn more from this exercise in the future.