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Before creating sweet illustrations or badass concept art you’ll need to master the fundamentals first. One delicious fundamental skill in the picnic basket of art is lighting & shadows.
This one topic can be incredibly complex because it not only involves the behavior of light, but also the behavior of materials that absorb/reflect light. It can take months or even years to fully comprehend the behavior of light and shadows.
But with the right learning materials and dedicated practice you can improve rapidly. In this post I’ll share the best books for artists to get into light, shadows, and everything you need to render these features accurately.
Light for Visual Artists
If I had to recommend one primary book for studying light and shadow it would be Light for Visual Artists. This is one of those books that gets into technical content but doesn’t go over your head.
It comes with just over 170 pages of great information about the different types of light and refractions of light. You get plenty of diagrams and real photos that show you how to analyze terminator lines, cast shadows, and reflected light.
Light is a very complicated fundamental skill of art. It’s arguably one of the most complicated topics right up there with anatomy.
But Light for Visual Artists should be your top study resource when first getting started. The book covers everything you could possibly need and it teaches the subject in a way that’s very easy to consume regardless of your skill level.
How to Render
Learning the theory behind light is certainly a good idea. But this won’t help you actually render light & shadows into your work. This is the value of Scott Robertson’s renowned book How to Render which is a follow-up from his first book How to Draw.
Everything coming from Scott Robertson is a godsend for digital and traditional artists alike. I learned so much from How to Render that I couldn’t put it down for months.
The exercises are very detailed so you should dedicate a lot of time to your work. Seriously the exercises are very complicated and you’ll be expected to practice each one for weeks before moving onto the next.
Complete beginners can learn a lot from How to Render. But the important thing is to not rush the lessons so you can absorb the most information from each stage of the learning process.
Regardless I would still highly recommend this book for anyone serious about studying art.
Lessons on Shading
For a super cheap alternative to the larger art books you might enjoy Lessons on Shading by W. E. Sparkes. He covers techniques along with sample workflows to help you render shadows and lighting accurately.
Note that the Dover print is basically a reprint of the earlier work. It has been updated and formatted to be easier to read but the content is still from the early 20th century. Yet the information is solid and I’d still recommend this to artists on a budget.
You start by learning the fundamentals of shadows and how they fall over objects. Then you’ll construct 3D objects on paper like cones, cylinders, spheres and pyramids. These exercises should be practiced daily to cement the ideas into your skull.
Later chapters get into shading real objects and casts. These lessons can be difficult since you’ll be drawing from life. But they’re also the most helpful lessons to aid your growth as an artist.
Drawing Light & Shade: Understanding Chiarascuro
When I first got this book it didn’t make much sense to me. But as I practiced shading on my own I eventually picked it back up and fell in love with the teaching style.
Drawing Light & Shade teaches you how to see light properly and how to render it on paper. This book uses hatching which is not my favorite technique. But it is valuable for all artists to learn.
What I like most is that this book stays on the topic of drawing and shading with pencils. If you’re new to art then you should try to render value with pencils or charcoal first before moving onto painting.
Each chapter introduces a new topic of chiaroscuro and how you should go about understanding light+shadow in life drawing. There are tons of illustrations and while these are great, I did feel like the book was a tad short on written content.
Still an amazing primer on the contrast between lights & shadows in your artwork. Maybe not the best book for an absolute beginner but definitely worth picking up at some point in your artistic journey.
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Everyone serious about painting should know about James Gurney. He’s a talented artist who has published a number of incredible books that cover unique and valuable topics.
You can apply these lessons to your oil paintings or your digital paintings, and the exercises work for life/reference painting along with painting from your imagination. The ultimate goal is to teach realist painting which is absolutely crucial to create professional concept art.
With only 224 pages you might think this book is fairly brief. However the content is packed so densely that you’ll need to work through the material slowly to really understand it all.
Anyone who wants to get into realist painting or concept art should own a copy of this book. Even if you’re not ready to paint yet I’d still recommend getting a copy so that it’s around and you can skim for tidbits of insight.
Digital Lighting and Rendering
If you’re looking for an art fundamentals book written by a serious professional then this one is for you. The author Jeremy Birn started at Pixar in 2002 and has done the lighting on dozens of movies like The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Cars 2, Up, Toy Story 3, and many others.
The goal of this book isn’t to make you an immaculate renderer. It demonstrates how Hollywood professionals handle CG lighting in major movies and TV shows. You’ll learn about convincing lighting effects, the physics behind them, plus common pitfalls and how to avoid them in the creative process.
Jeremy has two decades worth of experience in this area so he’s one hell of an expert. And this book is the epitome of his knowledge totaling just over 460 pages long.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get into the entertainment industry. This includes careers like 3D modelers, animators, background painters, storyboard artists, or any other job that concerns the lighting of a scene(either live action or otherwise).
But even traditional artists who like to work digitally can glean plenty of knowledge here. You don’t need a Hollywood dream to learn from this book. You just need a love of digital art and a willingness to practice.
Rendering in Pen and Ink
There’s good reason to attempt sketching in pen. It forces you to carefully consider each line and to learn from every single mistake.
But rough sketching is much different than detailed drawing. And the best resource to learn detailed pen work is Rendering in Pen and Ink made for illustrations, architects, and basically any related art form.
This book spans 256 pages covering a handful of techniques for hatching and detailed line work in ink. If you put pressure into a pen you can get a lot more response on the paper. This isn’t something you can always replicate with pencil so you’ll learn a completely different workflow for rendering.
Most of this book covers rendering for architecture and technical work. It can still help artists quite a bit, however the focus tends to lean on buildings and environments.
But the techniques you’ll learn can be applied to all of your ink work. So anyone interested in pen/ink rendering should definitely pick up a copy of this book. And if you want a companion piece for ink drawing I’d recommend Pen and Ink Drawing: A Simple Guide.
Lighting for Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling
This is the most recently published book in my entire list and it’s also one of the most detailed when it comes to info & practice exercises.
You’ll learn digital techniques for lighting in animation which can include backgrounds and character movements in a scene.
I would highly recommend grabbing a copy of Lighting for Animation if you have any plans to work digitally in animation whether 2D or 3D. Creating a believable scene goes beyond just understanding the fundamentals of light and shadow. You’ll also need to learn mood, tone, and other directorial subjects.
Plenty of books have been written about lighting for scene development, one of my favorites being Directing the Story. But I’m ecstatic with the depth of Lighting for Animation including insider tips and common VFX/animation workflows.
A must-have book for anyone interested in the entertainment industry.
Art Fundamentals: Color, Light, Composition, Anatomy, Perspective, and Depth
I know this book isn’t specifically made for lighting but it’s one of the best all-around art fundamentals books for concept artists & illustrators.
As the title suggests, Art Fundamentals teaches you a little bit about all the major fundamental skills you need to master before getting into professional artwork. Concept artists need to get comfortable with these fundamental skills to make the creation process that much easier.
If you’re looking for an overall fundamentals book that covers lighting along with everything else then I’d highly recommend grabbing a copy Art Fundamentals by 3DTotal. It’s written by professional concept artists who know the struggles of mastering these fundamentals.
But since this book touches on everything it’s not really a master guide to any single topic. So if you grab this I’d also recommend a more detailed book on lighting such as Light for Visual Artists.
All of these books can help you grow depending on your current stage of artistic development. But not all artists want to learn about 3D lighting or pen/ink rendering, so not all books are created equal.
It’s important to know what you want to learn before diving into any of these books. But thankfully many of the important ones teach the raw fundamentals of light & shadow which all artists must learn to improve their work.
Take a look over this list again and if any specific books look interesting take some time to check ‘em out.