Do you find it difficult to render your subjects so they look alive and are about to come off the page? Do you understand how the light is hitting your subject?

The best way to get your drawings to look 3-dimensional is to make sure you have the following:

  • Highlights- This is the area where the light is directly hitting the subject. Depending on the color and texture (shiny, matte or somewhere in between) this area is going to be the lightest part of your subject.
  • Middle values- This is where you see the most detail and the color is at its truest saturation.
  • Shadows- This where you need to darken the areas so they recede backwards in space.
  • Reflected Highlights- This area is found within the shadow areas and is slightly lighter as light is bouncing back into the subject.

Do you use a specific light source?

Botanical and Scientific Illustration teaches a set formulaic light source where the light consistently comes from the upper left at 45 degrees from the picture plane. This can be set up with a light in your studio and allows you to see the tonal values I listed above.

If you currently are not working with a specific list source here is a neat little trick which gets your art to show 3-dimension:

Light advances. Dark recedes.

Check out this example!

I recently had a student, Emma Andrews submit this beautiful colored pencil drawing of a Parrot Tulip. Emma did an excellent job at drawing all the frilly curves and petals. She was able to understand the view point and eyelevel of her tulip and did a great job. Her color mixing and application is beautiful. The colors are fresh and delicate. Her application of color follows the surface contour of the petals. Her self critique was that she thought it was missing something and asked for my feedback. My response was that it needed more form or dimension. I imported the digital picture she sent me into Adobe Photoshop and lightened and darkened areas so that Emma could see where she could go back into her drawing to improve it. I used the idea of Light advances and Dark recedes to show her how to make the tulip “pop”. Petals that folded over the top were made lighter and areas that were further back in space were made darker. Compare the 2 and see the difference.


Here is Emma’s tulip before I put it into Photoshop. Notice how pretty the colors are but is seems a bit flat.

Here is Emma’s tulip after I placed it into Photoshop. I was able to lighten and darken some areas to show more depth between the inside (concave) and outside (convex) surfaces. The areas that are receding in space are darkened by the computer. The colors may seem a bit muddy here but this is because of the computer program. When Emma works on the painting she will have more control over the colors she uses.


If you would like to gain more form and 3-dimension in your nature subjects I suggest you practice working with the simple concept of Light advances, dark recedes.

In my online Foundation Drawing class I go in-depth, step by step for using the scientific lighting. I would love for you to join me!