How to draw Highlights 💡

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

  • Where do I put my Hightlights?
  • Are Highlights hard or soft?
  • Which brushes should I use for Highlights?
  • Which colors have Highlights?

then this tutorial will help you answering all of them with the support of 3D rendering!

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”
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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 reflections is just a fancy term for mirror-like reflections.

 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 the hight. They also appear a lot on bevels/edges. Flat surfaces, like a floor also have Specular Highlights.

Screencapture from “Cinematic Lighting Techniques” by Parker Walbeck
Specular Highlights on bevels & flat surfaces

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 (marble, glass, polished plastic or metal), while others are rough (stone, chalk, regular paper, matte car paint).


“Smooth surfaces have small, sharp and bright Highlights, while rougher ones have bigger, blured and faint Highlights”
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The image below shows how the Specular Highlights look like with 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 or stone. Medium are a lot of common plastic objects like a mouse, keyboard or other objects that have a matte look. 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.

Which brushes should I use for Highlights?

The question above already answers this. Smooth surfaces with a small, sharp (hard), high opacity brush. As it goes rougher, the brush goes bigger, softer and less opacity. 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 the key light, that would appear on 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 normal 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

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. 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 mood you want that determine wich colors to use. A pretty common technique is using a cool rim-light and white or warm key-light. This will result in a nice orange-blue complementary contrast. This is used a lot in TV series, Movies and a lot of other media like video games.

Example render of the famous infinite-realities head using 1 white key light and 2 cool rim-lights

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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