Hand drawing a great white shark tutorial

Posted on 9 January, 2019

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As far as tutorials go, this isn’t going to be a massively detailed step-by-step on drawing a great white shark. Consider it more of an overview of the main elements involved, including approaches to things such as lighting and hatching.

I do plan to write something far more detailed in the not too distant future, but I also planned on being successful and internally content by now. Perhaps it’d be best not to hold your breath.

Anyway, if a breakdown of all the fundamental steps involved with drawing a great white shark will suffice, please do continue.

Oh, and happy new year.

Drawing great white sharks is fun

Art for science

This tutorial is based on an illustration I produced for a recent scientific publication, White Shark Research Priorities.

Initially, I was just contributing an infographic to communicate the results of the study. I then offered to produce another great white shark illustration for use in promoting the final paper. Because there aint no rest for the wicked, especially when the wicked love drawing sharks.

This is where that project ended up:

A combination of digital and traditional

As you can see, Picasso’s legacy has nothing to worry about just yet. Nevertheless, you can tell what the subject is and that there’s a distinct sense of form, shape and style. All things one must consider reasonably important when drawing.

So here’s how I went from a blank piece of paper and slight headache to the above.

Drawing a great white shark


Reference photos are something I make heavy use of, whatever I’m drawing. Mainly because it helps with accuracy, as even the key details of things I look at all the time (like great white sharks and the abyss), I’ve a tendency to forget. If you’re one of these geniuses who just knows what things need to look ‘right’ using your mind alone, I will forever envy you.

Sometimes, I also produce very basic lighting and shape mock ups in something like Unreal Engine 4. This helps if I’m going for a totally unique pose or lighting setup that I lack reference materials for.

Rough lighting references, setup in Unreal Engine 4.

Rough lighting references, setup in Unreal Engine 4.

It might seem overkill, but I do strongly recommend this. It gives you a bit more control over the references you’re working from and it also helps develop your understanding of light in general. Every time I create one of these, I improve my subconscious knowledge of how light and shadow works with different shapes.

Sure, I tend to forget those lessons seconds later anyway, but the principle is sound. The amount of reference materials I collect typically depends on the schedule for the project.

In this case, the deadline is short and I have a trillion other jobs in progress.

Ideally, I’d love to play with multiple sharks in different poses, but time is of the essence. As Anna often insists, I need to keep things as simple and conducive to reaching a thrifty conclusion as possible. Therefore, I rely on reference photos and pretty much nothing else.

Great white shark reference photos

Great white shark reference photos, credits include: Brad Leue (bradleuephotography.com.au), George Probst (sharkpix.com), Michael Muller (mullerphoto.com)

When it comes to drawing a great white shark, you want to be sure to capture the sense of mass and grace. They are incredibly streamlined creatures, with not a hint of waste. There are however, subtle variations in form and shape which are key to really nailing their character.

This is why reference images are useful. A slight turning of the head or opening of the jaws can have huge ramifications on the rest of the shape.

With a decent set and some lighting samples to work from, I move on to the initial sketch.

Sketching the outline – I hate circles

I know a lot of folks swear by the whole ‘rough it out in circles, first’ approach. For me personally, circles drive me round the bend… see what I did there?

I draw fairly frequently myself and how people go from a couple of orbs to a detailed illustration (like the below), still leaves my mind somewhat boggled.

Owl drawing

In fairness, I do use them if I’m having to work almost completely from imagination.

There’s no denying that they’re good for getting a sense of perspective and proportions before worrying about the finer details.

On this occasion though, reference images give me everything I need, so I jump straight into the main forms:

Shark Outlines

Main outlines of the shark

Getting the silhouette of your subject right should be considered a priority. Whether you’re drawing a great white shark, a cake or your next target, the silhouette communicates a lot.

It determines the proportions, as well as the overall look and feel of what you’re drawing. I prioritise areas of key geometrical variation, such as protruding shapes like the fins.

I’ve outlined these below. The body is the main physical form to which everything else connects, so like I say, it’s worth getting that right first. With that down and the remaining features being fairly simple shapes, it doesn’t take long to finish the main outline.

Great white shark drawing outlines

Once the outline is completed, I move onto features which appear on the body itself. The eyeball, cheek and gills are what stand out visually, further defining the animal’s shape.

I embellish the overall sense of mass ever so slightly, with a couple of lines across the back and tail, helping to give a sense of the great white shark’s volume.

These lines are also going to be important when it comes time to shading, because they tell me which direction to hatch in.

Internal outlines

Sketching basic shadows

With those sorted, I sketch a very rough shading pass. This is to introduce some shape to the illustration, through light and shadow.

I’ve decided that the back light will be positioned slightly above the animal, causing the side we’re facing to be dark, but for a nice rim light along the top. That’d look fairly un-interesting on its own, so the key light is going to be used to illuminate the side of the body we’re facing.

Thinking about it, I’m probably going to divert from this slightly as I go. I want the attention to be on the main form of the animal and use stencil shadows on areas such as the fins. That way, we get to see plenty of detail but also enjoy some of the dramatic/stylistic benefits offered by stencil shadows.

Because of all these considerations, the lighting setup is going to be more of a rough guide than a strict set of rules.

Technique wise, I just use the side of the pencil led and cover the whole area, doing several layers over those where I want the darker shadows to occur. You can afford to be reasonably rough at this point and don’t be afraid to erase things if they’re not quite right. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to capture the essence of what you’re aiming for.

Great white shark drawing, shading

Defining the outline

Once the pencil sketch is down, I go over the outline of this great white shark in pen.

I’m not too bothered about style at this point, I just want to define the outlines. Because of this, I don’t worry myself with their thickness. I’ll address those when it comes to blocking in the actual shadows and I start developing a clearer sense of aesthetic style.

For now, I just want the outline sorted. So that’s what I do:

Drawing the great white shark outline

Looks crap if I’m honest, but I’m confident that this is a short term issue and it’s not worth chucking the whole thing in the bin just yet.

Spoiler alert: I tender to consider doing so with all projects, at all stages, every five or so seconds.

Nothing quite like self-confidence.

Adding form and shape

If I go into a drawing with a specific style in mind, then I tend to illustrate in very clear stages. I apply each stage to the entire drawing, so it comes together piece by piece.

For example:

  • Fill in ALL the stencil shadows
  • Add ALL the soft shadows
  • Draw ALL the finer details, etc.

Right now, I don’t have a clear sense of style in mind. I’m drawing what’s infront of me, based on the reference photos. In these cases I much prefer to do all these stages at once, localised to very specific areas which I move through step by step. So, I do absolutely everything in one small area, then move onto the next area, do the same and repeat until completed.

Yes, this approach does risk unbalancing the image. On the flip side, I have greater faith in my ability when I’ve a more precise idea of what I’m aiming for, sat in front of me.

So I start by filling in the areas inside of the main outlines:


As you can see, I’m adding the main shadows, soft shadows and finer details at pretty much the same time. I work in from the main outlines, simply due to personal preference. For me, it makes it easier to maintain a sense of proportion and relation to the rest of the piece. If I start from the inside, I find I’m more likely to lose a sense of where I am.

Also, those rough lines I added along the back and tail during the initial sketch, are now helping determine where highlights and shadows should be occurring. I keep referencing my great white shark reference images as I go, so I don’t get carried away working from my (questionable) imagination.

Once those are in, I move to the inside of the subject. I use cross-hatching to define areas of shape and volume, with varying intensity depending on the lighting conditions.

Shading the shark illustration

Ed, what the fudge is cross-hatching, I hear you say?

Hatching – illustrative technique

I want to digress ever so slightly at this point, just to touch on the use of hatching when drawing. A more detailed tutorial on this specifically, is planned (again) for the future. This is a good technique which I use often, albeit in different ways depending on the goals of the project.

It’s a subject I could easily get quite deeply into and I don’t want to derail this tutorial, or make any more effort than is strictly required. That being said, since it’s employed so extensively in defining the shapes of our great white shark, there are a few points that are worth sharing, that you can likewise apply to your own drawings.

Hatching techniques and mediums

In illustration, hatching is a technique where lines can be used to create texture, shape and light. It can work with various mediums, particularly (in my experience) pens and graphite, etching and engraving. I guess it could work with paints too, but it’s generally better suited to finer mediums. I mean finer in respect of size, not the quality of their character.

Anyway, this technique comes in various forms. In this case, I’ve used hatching and cross-hatching almost exclusively.

Hatching usually comprises multiple straight lines, of equal/similar length that run parallel to each other. Such as this:

Hatching illustration technique

You can see that I’ve used this approach on areas of the shark where the shape doesn’t change too much, like behind the gills.

Conversely, cross-hatching is a fairly literal iteration on this approach. Some of your hatches cross over eachother, like so:

Cross hatching

This is useful, because those crosses allow you more control over the depication of shape and lighting. A well placed cross-hatch can be used to add shading to an area, therefore indicating that the shape changes.

On this illustration, I’m using it primarily for lighting and shape, (rather than texture) which aren’t completely separate things. The shape of an object can affect how light interacts with it.

Lighting with cross-hatching

Lighting is pretty simple: the darker the area, the more hatches you use, potentially to the point of being solid black:

Lighting with cross hatching

Multiple areas of the first great white shark drawing use this.

You can see across the stomach, inside of the dorsal fin and left pectoral fin, that plenty of cross-hatches are used to fade areas into total darkness.

Shapes with cross-hatching

Shape is slightly more complicated. It isn’t just the frequency and proximity of the crossed lines that give a sense of shape, it’s the direction of those lines, too.

Hatching at an angle which only diverges slightly from those which you’re crossing over, is good for creating smooth surfaces travelling in a single direction.

Hatching at a far stronger angle, makes a surface look harder.

The harder the angle, the harder surface. Yep.

Cross hatching shapes

The simplest way of thinking about it, is:

  • Lighting is a question of frequency and proximity of hatches.
  • Shape is a question of direction and overlay of hatches.

It’s worth experimenting with. Cross-hatching is a really useful technique which gives you a lot of control in creating complex, interesting surfaces, often just through the power of suggestion.

A few hatches in very key places, will do more for your drawng than just going overkill.

Clearly I’ve taken the opposite approach in this case and gone with a metric shit ton.

Final steps

Second shark

I mentioned towards the start of this tutorial, that I was going to avoid multiple sharks due to time considerations. I have since changed my mind on this.

I’m confident I can pull a second great white shark drawing out of the bag, within the time agreed. I apply the same steps as the above, making a few conscious decisions to ensure the addition actually adds something to the final piece, rather than just ‘more lines’.

I make the second shark smaller and position under the first. Structurally, this gives a clear sense of hierarchy to the image. From more of a ‘narrative’ based point of view, this also introduces a sense of perspective and depth. It might not sound like much, but it helps convey the idea that these animals are existing in the same space, rather than just a pair of drawings.

Comparison between shark drawings

By keeping the second shark (left) smaller, there’s a clearer sense of relationship between the two.

Pose and shading play a massive role in this, too. I face the second shark in the opposite direction to the first to further distinguish the two and give them their own sense of space/personality. I also use a lot more shading around the facial area, which is turning away from the light.

Positioning and scale put the sharks in the same physical space. Direction, pose and lighting ensure each feels like an individual with a life and character.

I forget to save the development of this one in stages, so here’s the final version:

Great white shark drawing


Rough samples

Lineart is just the first part of drawing a great white shark. With that complete, it’s time to colour this mofo. Yes, I can speak like the kids. No, it’s not tragic.

To start, I do a ton of really quick colour passes just to get an idea of what I like the feel of. I colour some quite naturally, others with more of a John Higgins approach (the boss who coloured the original Watchmen comic). None of these take more than a couple of minutes.

The point is to establish which I like the look of overall, so I can give myself a distinct colour palette to then work from.

Colour samples

A cross section of some of the colour samples created.

I do some typography samples as part of this process too, which I forgot to save.

Nevermind! On to the final beast.

Colouring the shark

I start with a very light, quite desaturated blue for each shark’s belly. I’m colouring these as if they’re underwater, so we’re going for shades of blue rather than grey.

A slightly darker blueish grey is then added to a layer above this, adding some soft shadows to areas of geometric variation.

Base colour

A dark but rich blue is then chucked onto a separate layer. It is filled up to the line I’ve drawn which distinguishes between the two tones.

I’m using a Wacom Intus 13HD to colour in, making this stage fairly quick. If I was using a mouse or track pad, I’d probably lasso select the area and fill it in.

It’s quicker with a Wacom.

Dark colours

I then add three layers of highlight to this area. Nothing too strong, I just want to pick out shapes and give a sense of volume to the image.

I add some slightly darker strokes to a few areas to add a little depth.

I decrease the size of the brush as I go, just to help highlight sharper edges.

Colouring samples

I’m pretty happy with that as the base colour for the shark itself, but I want the final piece to be really eye catching.

Coloured Lighting

I want to make it a little more vibrant, but without detracting from this fairly naturalistic colour scheme.

Using stronger colours on my Key Light and Back light will help address this. By bleeding in some really strong colours but limiting them to just the top and bottom of the shark, I should be able to get that extra punch I’m looking for. It might look a little strange by itself, but the final background will bring all this together.

As before, I chuck together some initial colour samples just to get an idea of what might work:

Key and Back Light colour samples

Key and Back Light colour samples

I’m immediately drawn to the yellows and greens. They contrast nicely with the main body, introducing something a little unexpected, but not totally alien.

That being said, I do prefer how the oranges look on the under side of the animal. Rather than worry about which would be better overall, I decide to go with both.

Green on top, orange on the bottom. Like a carrot.

Or a ginger person who’s gone to a Halloween party as The Joker.

Ugh, gingers.

Shark one colouring

Sharko numero two-o gets the same treatment.

The base colours on the second animal are much darker, so the highlights stand out a little more.

I like how this works.


Second shark colouring

Colour process applied to the second shark

Colouring the background

Today’s edition of ‘drawing a great white shark’ is almost complete, we just need a background that works with all the above.

I slap down a flat colour that sits somewhere between light green and orange. This will give those highlights some context and also contrast well against the base blues.

Incorporating texture

I dig the colour, but not how flat it is. There’s a lot of texture on the animal drawings which is missing from the background.

I don’t want the two things competing, but I do want to bring a bit more grit into the image.

I find a few, free to use paper textures and layer that which I think gives me the best foundation.

Oceanic colours, darkness and depth

That’s made things much darker, but that actually works for where I’m thinking of taking this.

I’m planning to incorporate the title of the paper into the background, which I’ll make bright so it almost feels like those illuminated letters are responsible for the highlights.

To help focus attention on the central area, I add some large blobs (yes, that’s the technical term) of oceanic green and blue to the top left and bottom right corners.

This adds more depth and a slightly more oceanic feel to the background.

Fun fact: great white sharks live in the ocean.

I then faintly overlay the original drawing upon the coloured and lightly textured background.

No technically minded reason, my gut just suggested it might look cool.

I agree with my gut.

Text and vibrancy

I don’t want to overcook this, so now seems as good a time as any to bring the text in.

This is going to be worked into the colours and tones of the background, but first I need to get the sizing right.

I fill the page:

Once that’s in, I can start fiddling with the effects I want to use.

I use something called called Layer Blends in photoshop, initially.

That’s something else I can talk about as a separate topic. To summarise, this allows you to manipulate layers of an image in varied ways, without necessarily damaging the fundamental image or interferring with other layers.

In this case, I use a spherical gradient which has white at the centre, fading into black.

I set this to overlay and the layer fill to 0%. As a result, only the gradient effects the image (rather than the whiteness of the text itself), itensified around the lighter areas.

I really dig this effect, because it draws more attention to the centre of the image.

It also continues the ocean vibes, with the opacity changing as it moves in and out of the different colours.

I like that, but I’m not a fan of how stark and crisp the edges of the fonts are.

Going back to my layer blends, I use a black inner glow which is set to a colour burn mode.

This works in almost the opposite fashion to the overlay mode. The glow (which looks more like a shadow, in this instance) intensifies around areas of darkness, introducing much more chaos and diversity in colour around the font edges.

It’s a simple step, but has a big impact.

Final tweaks and highlights

I’m happy leaving the text there and but for a couple more tweaks, am pretty much finished.

First, I go back to my background layers and add another, introducing further shadowing to the corners.

Again, it’s only subtle, but it’s enough to push a bit more emphasis to the centre of the image.

I then add a new layer ontop of the shark images, adding some very feint ‘splodges’ of colour.

These are tricky to see, but if you compare the dorsal fin and some of the highlighted areas on the two images, you’ll see a few hints of light.

This is really just to ‘bring everything together’ and is where I often find myself needing to be disciplined. It’s just too easy at this point to start going nuts with details and improving something into a failure.

Those details aren’t needed here, I’m happy with the overall vibe, I just want it to feel a little more ‘complete’.

With that in mind, I also add a very subtle shadow to the sharks. This darkens the coloured areas more than it does the white text, further emphasising that sense of depth.

I’m bored now.

In case you want see what all these steps look like one after the other, here’s a basic animated version.

I put this together afterwards, so I apologies if some of the stages don’t sync up exactly with what’s written above.

You get the jist of it:

Final colourisation

Overview of the colouring stages

And once more for good luck – the final image as it went to press:

Promotional artwork illustration

Final Promotional artwork illustration

Drawing a great white shark – The End

Hopefully that was of use to anyone interested in drawing a great white shark. If not, well, Google is your friend.

If you are interested in the science behind this particular image, please do check my Great White Shark Research Priorities page.

Also, if you’d like to learn more about the process behind the infographic featured in said study, please do read my Journal Entry on this subject.

As always, thank you for stopping by.

Sharks are the shit.

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