How to Shade When Drawing Cloth

Written by c.a. rubino
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How to Shade When Drawing Cloth
The folds of cloth create dramatic highlights and shadows. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Drawing is the art of transforming a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional object. A shape we perceive with our eyes has height, width and depth. The difficulty of drawing is allowing these qualities to be perceived even though the actual object is nothing but markings on a flat piece of paper. In order provide the eye with the illusion of depth and give shapes a believable three-dimensional presence in a two-dimensional space, you must observe the rules of perspective and take care to allow light to realistically interact with your shape.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging


  1. 1

    Determine the lines of movement or kinetic energy. Use light pencil markings to help trace these lines. For clothing on a human subject this is how the body has flexed and moved from a neutral position. For instance rotating the torso at the hips will create lines of movement from where the fabric is anchored on the upper chest, slanting down to the point of origin at the hips. Other types of cloth such as curtains or sheets are still affected by movement. Even if the overall mass of the object is currently at rest the afterimage of the movement will still be captured in the folds of the cloth. Imagine dragging a cloth across the floor, after you stop lines of movement will remain.

  2. 2

    Use the movement lines to determine the types and locations of folds in the fabric. Folds follow these movement lines and can present themselves in different ways. The folds of a rolled up sleeve look different than the folds of a hanging curtain. Observe the way the particular type of material you are drawing folds. Heavier materials create deeper folds than lighter material. Use a light pencil to mark out the folds using the movement lines as a guide, simplify and use only the strongest lines for the folds.

  3. 3

    Define folds with shadow and highlights. The top of the fold will be brighter then the depth of the fold. Start from the light highlights and work your way down to the darker shadows caused by the folds. Deeper folds can be formed by creating a bigger variance in the highlight and the shadow of the fold. More reflective and shiner materials have spots of even brighter highlights on them. Use shading to capture the way the light interacts with the cloth. Light will define the shape and depth of the cloth for you.

Tips and warnings

  • Any drawing technique can be used when shading cloth. It is all a manner of personal taste and style. One thing to try is to use the strokes of the pencil follow the contours of the cloth underneath, this can create a subtle effect of movement and texture to the cloth.

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