Learn How To Paint Shadows

The question of how to paint shadows is often puzzling to beginning artists. Shadows give the objects in your painting a sense of weight and indicate the direction and intensity of the light.

Shadows can radically affect the tone of your painting so they should definitely not be treated lightly.



How To Paint Shadows – Never Paint Shadows Too Dark

Our preconceived notions often dictate how we perceive things—so much so that we often don't even really look at what is around us. This is why it is so important for an artist to really learn how to see (see my other pages on this subject ).

In grade school, we paint a black blob next to the subject to indicate a shadow, so forever after we assume that shadows are always totally void of light—like black holes in your canvas, in other words.

To see how wrong this is, take a view finder with a peep hole and point it at a shadow in the landscape or in your still life arrangement. Notice how airy the shadows are? They are usually much lighter in color than your mind assumes they are.



How To Paint Shadows – Cast and Form Shadows

Cast shadows are “cast” from the subject matter and fall on another object (like your shadow on the ground on a sunny day. Form shadows are shadows that “form” on the objects themselves on the sides facing away from the light source.

It is important to make a distinction between them because their colors are different.

A form shadow usually takes on a darker tone of the local color (as you would paint it if it were lit by the light source).

A cast shadow from the same subject matter takes on the darker tones of the surfaces it is projected onto.

The Temperatures of the Shadows—Warm or Cool?

Generally speaking, if the light source is warm, such as the sun at a sunset or an incandescent light indoors, then the shadows on the subject matter will be cool. When I say 'cool', I mean cool relative to the temperature of the lighted area on the same subject matter. If you throw a warm light on a red apple, the temperature of the shadows will be a cooler red. So in that case, mix blue or cool green into the red to paint the shadow.

shadow of an apple in sun light

Bright sunlight usually produces a shadow of cool temperature.

shadow of an apple in incandescent light

Yellow cast indoor lights produce cool temperature shadows.

If the same apple is lit with a northern light (which is generally a cool light), the light area will become fairly cool. As a result, the shadows will be warmer by comparison. To paint this, you would mix violet with red to warm it up when compared to the cool lit regions.

apple in northlight-warm shadow


How to Paint Shadows – What Not To Do

  • Refrain from blending black or brown into the local color of the subject matter. Ditch your black and earth brown colors if you want vibrant shadows. Use the colors from the primary color family.

    If you are painting a red apple on a yellow cloth, you wouldn't take black and mix it with red to make the shadow. The color of the cast shadow from the apple will be a darker yellow plus some reflected red from the apple. The form shadow will be a darker red with violet or blue in it, depending on the temperature of the light source.

  • Don't paint the shadows too thick. Keep them thin, either transparent or, if opaque, not a solid dark. I like to describe shadows as spaces that can breathe; they allow air to come through. They are never solidly dark the way you see them sometimes in photographs.

How to Paint Shadows – Soft and Hard Edges?

Most of the shadows in nature are soft edged. Even the brightest light sources do not produce as hard an edge as you would think.

So, keep the edges soft to keep them from looking like cut and pasted black holes.

Mastering Color - click here for more info.
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