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  2. Digital Painting

How to Shade Black and White Realistically in Digital Painting

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Shading with colors is not an easy thing. All those hues with different saturations and brightnesses can make you dizzy! Black and white, in this case, should be much less complicated, but that's not true at all. If you want to learn how to shade very dark and very bright objects, especially in terms of living creatures and realistic lighting, keep on reading!

A Little Bit of Theory

As you have probably heard, white objects are capable of reflecting all the light hitting them. Black objects, on the other hand, are unable to reflect any light at all. But if it were that simple, we wouldn't need to shade these objects at all! A white ball would look like a white circle, and the same with a black ball.

how to shade black white flat colors

We all know that's not the case, so we shade these balls anyway. The most intuitive method is to make the shade brighter in the light and darker in the shadow. It gives us a proper 3D form, and may look all right as an element of many styles, but is it how it works in reality?

how to shade black white intuition

The Secret of Black

The premise of form-emphasizing shading is that an object is hit by various amounts of light depending on how each part is located towards the light source. The more light hits the area, we think, the brighter it looks. Therefore, we make the black ball black in the shadow, and then we make it gradually brighter as it's touched by light.

However, it's not really about light hitting the area—it's about how the area reflects it back to our eyes! And since black doesn't reflect anything at all, it can't reflect more light as it gets illuminated. If something becomes gray in light it means it was already gray!

The general rule is that perfect, 100% bright and pure light reveals the "true" color of the object. When light isn't that good, or it can't hit a part of the object, the color gets distorted. The true color of black is... black. It doesn't reflect anything, so it doesn't care about the amount of light hitting it (or not).

how to shade black white gray ball
This is actually a gray ball, the color of which is revealed by light.

How Do We See Black?

The truth is we don't. That's the definition of black—we can't see it. However, none of the objects we observe on a daily basis is truly black. Dark surfaces usually reflect 15–20% of light, but they still do it. This dim light is what we see when looking at a dark object.

There are a few ways that let us see "black" objects:

Diffuse Reflection

This is the most basic one, but it's not the most popular in the case of dark surfaces. It applies to situations where the object is dark even in full light, but it still has certain hue and saturation.

To achieve this effect, first define the brightest version of this color. Then you can shade it normally, bringing it to almost black in the shadow, but not any brighter than that base in the light. Don't compare it to more contrasting elements of the picture. If a material is supposed to be dark, make it dark!

how to shade black white blue ball diffuse reflection

Specular Reflection

This kind of reflection is easy to recognize, because it moves when you move. This is that "glossy effect". You can imagine a matte black material that has a thin, transparent layer on top. That layer stays invisible until it's given something bright to reflect.

To achieve this effect, start with a black (or very dark) material. Then use a hard brush to paint a reflection of the light source—the smaller, the better the effect. Pay attention to other elements in the environment that reflect light very strongly, like a white floor. You can use a soft, round brush to reflect such an area on the black surface. The brighter the reflected object, the brighter the reflection.

how to shade black white glossy shiny specular reflection
Treat a glossy surface like a mirror reflecting only bright things and making them darker

The color of that reflective layer is important to determine what and how it's going to reflect the environment. A white layer will be able to reflect every color, though they will be quite dark unless they come from a light source. A red layer, on the other hand, will react to a white light by reflecting red only, and it will not reflect green or blue.

how to shade black white specular reflection color

Matte Specularity

This is certainly the most popular kind of reflection when it comes to black materials. Once again imagine the thin, transparent, glossy layer, but this time make it not so perfectly smooth. The reflection is going to be quite diffuse!

To achieve this effect, shade with a scattered or textured brush. Remember to leave blackness in the shadow and to treat these reflections like any other specular reflection in terms of color and brightness!

how to shade black white matte reflection mix


This one is the most fascinating. Interestingly, it doesn't have anything to do with the pigment. It's a structural color, which means it comes from special properties of the material. In short, the light reflected from the surface interferes with the light hitting the surface, which modifies the signal. This interference may be constructive (creating a color), or destructive (canceling any color that should be reflected and resulting in black).

The power of iridescence lies in motion—such a surface changes color depending how you look at it. It can't be simulated perfectly on a still picture, but we can successfully use it to make a dark surface brighter.

You can use it as a specular reflection, matte or not. Iridescence lets you use colors that have nothing to do with the environment. When shading, shift Hue drastically with every level of Brightness, and you'll see something beautiful! Magical as it may look, this is completely realistic and happens a lot in nature.

how to shade black white iridescence painting colors raven

The Colors of White

All the previous tricks can be used here as well, but white brings us other problems. How dark can white be in the shadow? And how is a shaded white ball different from a shaded gray ball?

White is so hard to paint because we know it should be bright, but at the same time we want to shade it to give it a 3D form. Is there any compromise?

The Colors of the Environment

White reflects everything that can be reflected. In perfect shadow, white is black, because there's nothing it can reflect. However, in most pictures, perfect shadow occurs only in the crevices. Anywhere else, ambient light is present, filling and brightening the shadows subtly.

This ambient light, no matter how weak, is always perfectly reflected by white materials. If that light is only 10% bright, a blue material may reflect 3% of it, while a white material will reflect it all. Therefore, it will always look brighter in the shadow than any other color.

The tricky part is that white reflects all the colors, even if they're not emitted by a very strong light. Therefore, white is rarely white, or even gray. Put it on grass, under the sky, and it will be covered with a green-blue gradient, with the white part only visible in the highlight area.

how to shade black white reflect environment

White Balance

This also brings us to the issue of white balance. Our vision system is based on contrast—we don't see something because of what it is, but what it isn't. In the language of our eyes and brain, bright is the lack of darkness, and blue is the lack of yellow.

Because of this, everything we see is relative. Your computer may say that those are the same colors, but your eyes tell you something different. Do your eyes lie? Maybe, but in this case you'd need to say they never tell the truth! Our vision is based on illusions, and computers are lacking this knowledge. They're too objective.

how to shade white color illusion

We say a color has a temperature. We say it's cool if it's bluish, and warm if it's yellow or orange. The truth is that for our eyes a color is cool if it's more blue than its neighbor. It doesn't need to be bluish at all, if something placed next to it contains even less blue.

how to shade white color temperature

This also applies to white. You may try to make it as neutral as possible, but it will always seem cool or warm, depending on its environment. A neutral, 100% bright white will look warm when placed next to a blue-tinted white, and cool when in the company of a yellow-tinted white.

how to shade white balance temperature

It's very important to accept this fact. Don't ever treat white as a pure, non-saturated color. Pay attention to the color of the light source and color everything accordingly—white included. In fact, it's better to choose between a cream white and snow white, leaving neutral, 100% white for highlights only.

how to shade white cream snow

Subsurface Scattering (SSS)

It's not always true that white reflects everything. Some white materials are translucent—the light comes into them, but instead of being absorbed, it gets reflected inside the object, making it bright under the surface.

This light isn't brighter than the one reflected directly, but it does magic to parts in the shadow—it increases their saturation and shifts their hue toward the color of the light. It is especially useful for white organic materials. It's the reason for the subtle difference between them and plastic of the same color. Even white fur uses this effect!

To create this effect, don't use a darker version of warm/cool white for the shadow. Instead, make it overly saturated and relatively bright (especially in the terminator area), with the temperature of the light.

how to shade white subsurface scattering

Over- and Underexposure

There is one more aspect of shading black and white. It applies mostly to what cameras show to us, but our eyes aren't immune to it, either. When a lot of very strong light is present, the midtones of shading are literally murdered, consumed by the growing highlight area. When this happens, even black can be shaded with white!

Another side of the same situation is when there's not enough light. Highlights disappear, and shadows consume bigger areas. In this case, white can be shaded with black.

Both these situations are generally not desired in photography, because they kill details. It's characteristic for over-exposed pictures that they have big areas of white shades, and it's the same with under-exposure and black. So if you find this in your picture, this is a sign you've got something to fix!

how to shade white over under exposure
This is an under-exposed white ball and over-exposed black ball. Hard to tell, huh?

A Practical Example

Let's see a quick example of using this theory in practice (you can download this file in the right sidebar).

I've sketched the creature, and then added lighting and base colors. Dark blue is going to be my base for black, and dark orange for white.


I've sketched the creature, and then painted a base for its body—a Clipping Mask for the future layers. Notice that it's dark, but not black yet.

how to paint black white photoshop clipping mask

Then I've added a New Layer and painted shadows on it. I've set the Blend Mode to Multiply.

how to paint black white photoshop lighting

White Fur

I've created a New Layer below the lighting, and painted a base for white patches. Notice it's not dark white (gray), but dark orange. That's because I've decided to use warm white for the fur.

how to paint black white photoshop base colors

Now I've used a dark cream white to paint a sketchy fur. If you want to learn more about painting fur this way, see this tutorial.

how to paint black white photoshop white fur base

Now I only needed to gradually increase Brightness and decrease brush size.

how to paint black white photoshop white fur details dark
how to paint black white photoshop white fur details bright

In the last, near-white phase, I've added a hint of blue and green, depending on the imagined environment.

how to paint black white photoshop white fur bright

To make the fur translucent I've added some orange into the shadows.

how to paint black white photoshop white fur subsurface scattering


I've picked the color of the base with the Eyedropper Tool (I). I've increased its Brightness and added very subtle lighting.

how to paint black white photoshop black fur basic shading

Then I've continued, making the brush smaller and brighter with every step. The more matte the fur is, the fewer of these steps you should take. The final effect should be the result of your decision, not an accident!

how to paint black white photoshop black fur details

I've decided to make the fur glossy, so I made it reflect the environment's colors. A small brush is crucial here!

how to paint black white photoshop black fur shiny
how to paint black white photoshop black fur ultra shiny


Horns, antlers and teeth tend to be smoother and brighter at the tips because they're worn out. That's why I've decided to make a mix of glossy white and matte black for the antlers.

how to paint black white photoshop antlers dark
how to paint black white photoshop antlers shading

Notice that every "pearl" of the antlers is shaded separately. That's the secret of creating a texture!

how to paint black white photoshop antlers texture

A small, hard brush is the secret of glossiness!

how to paint black white photoshop antlers glossy

Finally, I've added details.

how to paint black white photoshop creature finished

That's All!

"But it's not black and white, it's blue and yellow," you may say. If you want to see "real" black and white, look down. In nature colors don't exist as we imagine them. They interact with each other, so they're never pure. By treating every color as a separate entity you go away from realism, which isn't bad as such, but if your intention is to paint realistically, you shouldn't ignore it.

how to paint black white photoshop comparison natural shading
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