How to paint cast shadows in acrylic

Carousel, acrylic, 30x30in (76x76cm)

Follow this simple demonstration by Jo Quigley to learn how to paint cast shadows in acrylic, along with some advice on why painting shadows is important.

As featured in the July 2018 issue of The Artist magazine. Never miss an issue by joining one of our print or digital subscriptions. 

What is a cast shadow?

Cast shadows are created as a result of an object obstructing the light, whereas form shadows are exactly that – shadows that show form, appearing on the object itself on the opposite side of the light source. Whilst they're both equally important, the approach to painting them isn’t the same.

Why are cast shadows important?

Not only are cast shadows essential to portraying a sense of light, they can be used to provide the viewer with other essential information to further enhance a sense of space and atmosphere. For example, shadows help:

To describe the type of light

Different light sources will create different shadows. For instance, darker shadows with sharper edges will indicate a brighter more intense light, whereas lighter ones with softer edges will indicate a more diffused light.

To indicate the position of the light source

The angle and length of a shadow tells us where the light source is located. For example, short small shadows will indicate a light source directly overhead, whereas long shadows will indicate a lower light source. In a painting this can inform the viewer about the time of day, be it morning, noon or night, or even the time of year, for instance when the sun is lower in the winter months.

To show the space or surroundings of an object

Cast shadows are important in order to show where an object is located in a space. When an object is connected to its shadow, you know that it sits on the same surface; an object that doesn’t connect to its shadow will appear to float or be lifted off the surface.

Compare these two images:

Painting shadows

When viewed without the shadow, the proportions of the figure appear to be wrong (left); when the shadow is added it becomes clear that one leg is in fact elevated and therefore foreshortened (right).

How to paint shadows 

When it comes to techniques for painting shadows, there are two ways you can approach them: the first is painted directly or opaquely and the second is via a transparent glaze. Either method can deliver good results so long as you observe them correctly.

Although information on painting shadows isn’t hard to come by, much of it can be conflicting, overly technical or confusing. And whilst there’s clear science behind what colours shadows are and ways to calculate the shape and angle of them, this may only be observed if you’re working in a very controlled environment, using a single light source. In practice, even if your only light source is the sun, chances are it’ll be reflecting off a multitude of surfaces. As is the case with so many aspects of painting it’s important to paint what you see, rather than rely on a formula. 

Things to consider when painting shadows

  • Shadows create light
  • Everything casts a shadow
  • There are shadows at night
  • There is still light in the shadows
  • Shadows are darker and sharper the nearer they are to the source
  • Shadows follow the contours of the surface
  • Shadows still have texture

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How to paint cast shadows in acrylic: demonstration

For this painting I used my own photographic references. As is the case with most of my paintings, characters are taken from multiple references and then carefully composed into an image. As my shadow paintings have no particular background, I usually start by selecting a few central figures and let the composition evolve around them.

Stage one

I created a warm colour with titanium white, Naples yellow and light portrait pink that I applied with a large brush for the background. I wanted a flat, even colour, so mixed enough paint for at least two coats, keeping a little left over in a sealed jar for touching up small areas later. Then using a mix of burnt sienna, cobalt blue and white, I positioned the first two figures and their shadows.

Stage two

Painting shadows

Next, I positioned a few more figures in the foreground. As I had chosen an aerial perspective, there's a slight foreshortening of the foreground figures. The relationship between the groups of figures and their respective shadows determined the scale of the remaining figures and the direction of their shadows.

Stage three

Painting shadows with acrylics

Still concentrating on the foreground, I added further figures, overlapping shapes to create depth. I resisted the urge to put any detail in the figures at this stage, preferring to concentrate on pattern and shape.

Stage four

Painting shadows

I continued to add figures, taking care to keep the scale of figures on any particular plane the same. I tried to create a balance of shapes and spaces, conscious that if it became too organised it would look unnatural.

Stage five

Painting shadows

Once satisfied with the overall composition, I added some detail to the figures to bring them to life. Having initially painted the figures dark, it was easy to add hints of colour whilst maintaining the overall tone from the layer beneath.

Finished painting

Painting shadows

Sunshine and Shadows, acrylic, (60x60cm)

Finally, I varied the tone of each shadow. Darkening the area of shadow closest to the figures, whilst lightening and softening the edges furthest away, enhanced the feeling of depth and gravity. I added one last figure, a busker, and the painting was complete.


Jo Quigley studied at Winchester School of Art and Kingston University, and taught painting before turning professional. Jo demonstrates to art societies across the south east of England – for more details see www.quigleyarts.co.uk

Now you've mastered painting shadows, why not learn how to paint rainy street scenes in acrylic or acrylic colour mixing techniques with our ultimate guide to acrylics.