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Success with Shadows by Robin Capon

Posted on Tue 26 Mar 2019

Success with shadows

A series that deals with one problem at a time.  Advice from Robin Capon

While involving a degree of personal interpretation, most artists prefer to adopt a fairly representational approach in order to create a likeness of the scene or subject before them. When working in this way, success obviously depends on accurately defining the various shapes that make up the subject.  It is equally important to note how each shape is influenced by light and shade, for it is the contrasts of tone, from highlights to deep shadows, that help describe a shape and place it in context. Shadows are particularly significant, since they tell us where the light is coming from and help to suggest space and three-dimensional form. Moreover, shadows can be useful as a compositional device for unifying the design or adding interest to certain areas, whether in a flower study, a landscape, a portrait or any other subject. Additionally, they are a great way of conveying mood in a picture or creating a special light quality. A scene with no shadows or very light shadows, for example, will normally look calm and peaceful, whereas very dark shadows tend to add drama and mystery.

However, assessing the strength and subtleties of shadows, knowing what colour to paint them, and deciding just how much emphasis to place on them in a composition isn’t always easy. So let’s have a look at some of the main uses of shadows, with a few suggestions and ideas to show how the theory can be translated into practice.

Shadows within shapes

When we think of shadows we tend to imagine long cast shadows formed when an object has been placed in a strong light. But, of course, shadows can occur on the surface of an object as well as on the surrounding area, and these are the shadows we need to understand first.

Illustration 1 - In a subject like this, look for surface tones and shadows to help you capture a likeness and suggest three-dimensional form.

If you look at the drawing of a kettle in Illustration 1 you will notice that there is no cast shadow or any suggestion of a background. Yet, despite being treated in isolation, without reference to the surrounding space or other shapes, the object appears real and three-dimensional. The reason for this lies in the fact that a lot of attention has been given to surface shadows and tones. By carefully noting the extent and strength of these shadows on the actual object and then reproducing these as faithfully as possible in the drawing, a convincing likeness has been achieved.

So, shadows can help describe an object and model its form. It is largely a matter of observation; of noticing the different strengths of tones across the object and then translating these, with whatever medium you have chosen, onto your paper or canvas. But don’t be too literal about it – there has to be a certain amount of simplification and sometimes you may even have to exaggerate the relative tones in order to create the desired effect.

If you rarely make any tonal drawings of this type or are not used to looking at surface tones and shadows in this way, then why not try one or two drawings like Illustration 1 for yourself? Choose individual, everyday objects and position them so that there is a strong light from one side, rather than an even light or light from above. Work in soft pencil or charcoal, so that you can explore the various tones fully.

Shapes and their shadows

Cast shadows, the sort of shadows that emanate from the base of an object, are useful in a number of ways. They can help suggest the space around the object while anchoring it to the ground or fixing it in a context, and they can be used as a deliberate pictorial device. Again, careful observation is the key to success. You need to check the angle and size of cast shadows and how dark they are. Their nature will depend on the source of light and whether this is sunlight or artificial, while other influences include the weather, the time of day and the season.

Do ensure that all the shadows are consistent and follow the same direction, away from a fixed light source, especially when you are painting a subject outside that involves shadows cast by the sun, as these will obviously change position as the day wears on. With any cast shadow, notice if the shadow reflects the actual shape or whether it is distorted in some way because of the surface it falls across.

Illustration 2 – As a means of understanding surface and cast shadows, start by making a painting of a simple object which has been placed in a strong light.  Concentrate on the main areas of tone.

As an introduction to cast shadows, try a couple of exercises like those shown in Illustrations 2 and 3. Working in tones of a single colour, choose a simple object and block in the main areas of shadow, both on the surface of the object as well as its cast shadow. Now take a different object and paint it as realistically as you can, referring to the tonal variations in particular. For both exercises, place the object in a strong light so that there are some well-defined shadows.

Illustration 3 – Cast shadows can add to the interpretation of three-dimensional form by alluding to the space around the object

Observing shadows

The play of light and shadow will bring to life the dullest of subjects, and in any picture, a positive use of contrasting tones will always enhance the result. Therefore, when making roughs for a painting, or you are out sketching, pay particular attention to the strength and distribution of shadows. For reference sketches like those shown in Illustrations 4 and 5, try to develop the habit of seeing and recording in terms of tonal values as well as shapes.

Illustration 4 - When sketching outside, pay particular attention to the tonal qualities of the subject.

And don’t assume that all shadows are merely dark, solid shapes. A shadow can be soft or broken in form, just as it can be sharp and well defined. If created by a strong light, a shadow will usually have crisp, clear edges, while a more diffused light will generally give weaker shadows with blurred edges.You can practise looking at, and painting, different types of shadows by setting up a still life group and lighting it in different ways.

Illustration 5 - Colour sketches should also take note of shadows, which can add interest to a simple subject like this


Obvious shadows can help reinforce the structure or design element of an idea and emphasise such aspects as movement and the sense of space and distance. Shadows are also a good way of adding interest to an empty foreground space and creating counterchange – where dark shadows, contrast with the lighter, more colourful shapes around them. This technique is often used in a painting to define one object against another or to exaggerate the impression of light.

Illustration 6 - Shadows can play an integral part in the composition and add interest and impact.

Notice in the line and coloured pencil sketch in Illustration 6, how the shadows help to unify the composition, while in Illustration 7, dappled shadows break up what would otherwise be a rather dull foreground space. When you are next painting a landscape, townscape, interior or similar subject, consider how the shadows play their part in the composition and how they can be used to enhance the sort of effects and mood you want in the picture.

Illustration 7 - Dappled shadows are particularly useful for enlivening an empty foreground area, as in this watercolour study

The colour of shadows

There are no hard and fast rules about mixing colours for shadows, but something which should be avoided is painting them grey or black. Shadows are very rarely either of these colours, and in any case tend to dominate or deaden a picture. Instead, think of shadows as being muted colours.  When deciding on the colour to paint a shadow, consider the colour of the object itself, the colour of the surface on which the shadow falls, and the surrounding colours. All of these have an influence.

In general, the colour of a shadow is simply a darker version of the local colour, that is the colour of the surface on which it falls. But shadows may also pick up some of the colour around them, especially if these are strong colours. And light can play its part too, for light reflected from a nearby surface can subtly enrich the colour of the shadow. For example, if you look at the colour of shadows falling across a pale surface on a bright sunny day, they may well reflect some of the blue of the sky.

Many artists have their own theories about the colour of shadows, some believing that shadows always include touches of the complementary colour of that of the actual object. Others will mix complementary colours such as cerulean blue. Winsor violet and yellow ochre, to produce the sort of neutral colour that is useful for shadows. Try your own experiments.  A colourful still life with plenty of strong shadows will prove a good subject to tackle. But don’t fall into the trap of concocting a set formula for dealing with the colour of shadows. Every shadow is different!

All illustrations by Robin Capon

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This article was originally published in the July 1999 issue of Leisure Painter

Success with Shadows by Robin Capon


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