How to draw Highlights 💡

In this tutorial I will explain how to draw Highlights. If you ever asked yourself the following questions:

  1. Where do I put my Hightlights?
  2. Are Highlights hard or soft?
  3. Which brushes should I use for Highlights?
  4. Which colors have Highlights?

Then this tutorial will help you answer all of them. In this tutorial I’ll be using the magic of 3D rendering to visualize various concepts! My goal is to take away the guessing aspect and clear up this topic.

1. Where do I put my Hightlights?

To answer this, first we’ll need to know what Highlights actually are. In 2D illustration, we call certain bright areas on and around objects highlights. In 3D rendering (CGI) Highlights are called specs, speculars or Specular Highlights.


“Specular Highlights are reflections of the light source”#

The location of Specular Highlights depend on the position of the light source(s). They appear on a point where the angle of light hitting an object is the same as the angle of the light reaching the viewer. This may sound very mathematical and difficult to imagine, but we can make it easier for us.

Just for visualizing purposes. Not a physically accurate representation

If we imagine that the object is made of a polished metal like chrome, we can clearly see the Specular Highlight (the reflection of the light source). That’s because a material like chrome consist only of specular reflections. Specular reflection is just a fancy term for mirror-like reflection.

 A sphere with a chrome material reflecting it’s suroundings like a mirror

On sphere-like objects like eyes it’s pretty easy to determine that point. On cylindrical shapes, the Specular Highlight gets streched along it’s height/ length.

Screencapture from “Cinematic Lighting Techniques” by Parker Walbeck

Another method is trying to imagine a little mirror on cylindrical objects. Now you have to place the imaginary mirror so that the mirror shows you the light source! The mirror cannot be rotated as you want tough. The mirror is always facing the same direction as the surface’s (outward) direction. The mathematical keyword for this is normal vector.

Diagram of where Specular Highlights are on a cylindrical object

They also appear on cuboid objects. Especially on bevels/edges. Flat surfaces, like a floor also have Specular Highlights. A floor for example behaves like giant mirror.

Specular Highlights on bevels & flat surfaces

A very useful aspect of 3D rendering are so called render-passes. These passes isolate different aspects like direct lighting, bounce lights and Specular Highlights. That’s one of the reasons why I like to sometimes make my own references in 3D. It reveals i.a. where Highlights are and I don’t have to guess or find a reference photo that has the same lighting setup like the thing I want to draw.

Render passes of this 3D-Model

2. Are Hightlights soft or hard?

Specular Highlights come in different shapes and forms. How soft/hard they are depend on the surface. Some surfaces are smooth like marble, glass, polished plastic or metal, while others are rough like stone, chalk, regular paper, matte car paint.


“Smooth surfaces have small, sharp and bright Highlights, while rougher ones have bigger, blured and faint Highlights”#

The image below shows how the Specular Highlights look on different surface types. A perfectly smooth surface reflects like a mirror, which is why the first one looks like a Billiard Ball. The smooth one is close to polished plastic. Medium are a lot of common objects like a mouse, keyboard or other objects made of plastic. Rough materials are for example paper, cardboard (not painted), natural wood, anything “dry” looking basically.

Human Skin for example has variable smoothness. Some areas are smoother than others. Typical areas where we see Highlights are the forehead, tip of the nose, cheek bones, shoulders, lips with glossy lipstick. Also skin that is wet, sweaty or oily is smoother and shows more Highlights. That’s why for example having too strong Highlights could suggest that the skin is wet or oiled.

Another very noticable aspect of Highlights on Skin is that they are percieved differently depending on how light or dark the skin color is. Highlights on fair skin are less visible, while they’re more prominent on darker skin. The reason for that is contrast. Light on light just doesn’t stick out that much or has not a lot of contrast as light on dark.

It’s similar to having white text on a yellow background Vs. white text on a dark background. White on yellow is not well readable, which is why it’s not recommend in Graphic Design.

What does that mean for drawing? It means if the contrast/difference between Highlights and (light) skin is very low, the Highlights can be left out completely (on the skin), because nobody would see them anyway. The same principle goes for shadows on dark skin. That’s why it’s a common tip for artists to focus more on shadows if you’re character has a light skin color and focus more on Highlights for dark skintones.

3. Which brushes should I use for Highlights?

The section above literally answers this. Smooth surfaces with a small, sharp (hard), high opacity brush. As it goes rougher, the brush gets bigger, softer and less opaque. But it also depends on your style.

In more cartoony styles, where soft brush strokes are rather rare, it’s for example possible to ignore Highlights of rough objects (soft, faint ones) and only draw hard highlights on edges. Also e.g. leaving out highlights from a key light, that would appear in the middle of a character’s face (nose, cheeks, etc.) since they’re hard and could cause problems with the readability.

This artwork for “The Rise of the TMNT” is a great example how hard highlights are used in a more 2D style. They’re primarily on the edges and less in the middle of it. These can be created when using rim-lights placed outside the frame, in the back of a scene. Those are indeed Specular Highlights and not regular lit areas how many may think it is!

The more light sources you have, the more specular highlights you’ll get. You can place them in different places to get interesting and new looks. To learn more about this I recommend watching tutorials on YouTube about lighting setups for photography & portrait lighting techniques. It’s of course always possible to ommit some realism for stylistic or aesthetic purposes, but learning about lighting setups expands your horizon a lot as an artist. It basically gives you a whole new tool-set to play with.

One of my drawings where I used 2 lights to get 2 highlights on the eyes/ iris

4. Which Colors have Highlights?

Since Highlights are reflections of the light source(s) they naturally adapt the color of the light source. In a warm sunset scene you’d get warm highlights, because the sun (the light source) has an orange color at sunset. The color also gets mixed with the local color of your subject. I like to use set my Highlights layer to the blend-mode “screen” or “add” to get a natural blending/ mix (and reducing it’s opacity to taste).

Other than that it all comes back to Color Theory and the mood you want, that determines wich colors to use. A pretty common technique is using a cool rim-light and a white or warm key-light. This will result in a nice orange-blue complementary contrast. This is used a lot in TV series, films and a lot of other media like video games. This look is also known as the “Teal & Orange Look”.

Example render of the famous infinite-realities head using 1 white key and 2 cool rim-lights in the back, left & right

I hope that this tutorial was useful and answered your questions. Feel free to leave a comment or any kind of feedback! 😃

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