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  • Writer's pictureJenny Lu

5 Essential Light and Shadow Types that Every Artist Should Know

By Jenny Lu | 24 March 2021

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” -Pablo Picasso

When you step into an art classroom, the first thing an art teacher will tell you to do is probably draw a still life setup. Still-life drawing is the foundation of art. But you can hardly make any good still life without a solid understanding of the Five-Value System.

Today we will introduce you to the five essential light and shadow types that will benefit your artistic journey tremendously. Understand different types of shadows will help you break down the form of an object quickly. Everything can be broken down into cones, spheres, cylinders, cubes, or some combination of these forms.

Every light and shadow on these objects can be categorized into the Five Value System. Analyzing forms is an essential fundamental skill that will allow you to observe from life with keen eyes.

Shadows and light are not evenly dark or light. Gradations exist within them. We can even break down the light and shadows into a basic system: highlight, form shadows, core shadows, cast shadows, and reflected light.

We can see this five-value system in everything in our daily life. When applying the five-value system, your drawings will start to get a great sense of dimension and volume.

Now, let’s dive into the Five-Value System!


A highlight is the very lightest part of the light area on an object. The highlight can suggest where the light comes from in a picture. If you want to make your painting looks realistic, you want to have a cohesive light source. Make sure the highlights on your objects are all coming from the same direction.

Form Shadows

When the planes turn away from the light source, there is a form shadow. The form shadow is also the transition between the shadow and the light side.

Core Shadows

You can say core shadow is the legend of all the shadows. By adding core shadows, you can make things look realistic and three-dimensional. The core shadow sits right on edge between the light and the dark. It’s also a place where light can no longer enter the shadow area. Usually, the core shadow is the darkest area “on” the object.

Cast Shadows

A cast shadow is the darkest shadow in the five-value system. It exists “outside” of the object. The cast shadow appears when an object blocks the light and casts a shadow onto “another object.” Another object can be a floor, a wall, or even the skin underneath your nose.

Usually, you want to create hard edges to indicate the cast shadows. However, you want to make soft edges for the rest of the shadows and light in the five-value system.

Reflected light

A reflected light is when light hits an object from another object. The reflected light indicates that an object exists in space because the reflected light’s colors are affected by its surroundings. When you are painting, you can add the shades of surrounding objects’ colors into your object’s shadows and regard it as the reflected light.

Remember: A reflected light will never appear as bright as the form shadows unless your object is a metal!

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must forget them.” -Nadia Boulanger


This Five-Value System is one of the most important fundamental principles in art. As soon as you get familiar with these five essential light and shadow types, you’ll realize that all kinds of realistic paintings and drawings are based on the Five-Value System. Study them and practice identifying them on the things you come across in your daily life!

What are some of the essential principles you think every artist should know? Let me know in the comment below. If you enjoy this article, subscribe to our blog.

If you’d like to learn more about the five essential light and shadow types, click here and here to get more information. Stay creative and happy painting!

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