“A Painting is complete when it has a Shadow of a God”
Rembrandt van Rijn
Unlocking the Secrets to Creating Realistic Shadows in Sunlit Paintings
I remember being taught at art college that shadows weren’t really present in paintings until the Renaissance period.
And you’d be forgiven for thinking when you look at some beginners work, that they were from Ancient Greece – they didn’t use shadows either!
In live painting classes in the past, when I’ve mentioned the words ‘cast shadow’, students concentration wains or worse, a look of rising panic crosses their faces as if they’ve been duped into a technical drawing class.
I’m not quite sure why cast shadows seem so mysterious, elusive or confusing. Shadows help to ‘ground’ an object and learning to accurately observe them, is the most effective way of making your paintings look convincing.
And just by switching the name around it seems easier to digest.
I want to keep it simple without the complications of multiple light sources or atmospheric perspective that occurs in vast landscapes, today I am going to focus on shadows cast outside, by sunlight.
Shadows cast by a tree, by a building, shadows cast by a chair or plant pot. The shadow that is falling onto the ground, or against a wall, or onto a table.
Looking for Shadows
It can be a really good exercise to look through sun-dappled holiday photos, go outside and walk around your garden or if you live in the U.K. take advantage of the rare heatwave because there’ll be a constant source of clear shadow shapes everywhere and purposely look for subjects to paint where the shadows are the main focus of the image.
This will help you to tune your eyes to look for interesting abstract shapes and patterns and begin to notice the interplay of shadows and the surfaces they fall onto.
But it’s not just a case of blocking in a black shadow on the ground, there are a few key things to observe that will make your cast shadows appear more believable.
The first thing we need to look at is the shape of the shadow.
Beginners tend to focus on the main subject they are trying to draw or paint, whereas artists will often look at the shapes around the subject (called negative space) and the shapes being cast by the subject.
Because it’s easier to draw the abstract shapes of a shadow more accurately than observing and trying to draw a familiar object (see the 3 reasons why you can’t draw)
#2. Shadow qualities
The two most common lighting conditions when painting outside are direct sunlight and a cloudy sky and both influence the qualities of the cast shadow edge.
- Direct sunlight gives us a hard light source that creates clearly visible shadows and produces a hard crisp edge to the cast shadows
- A cloudy sky gives us a soft light source which gives much subtler shadows with soft blurry edges.
So you’d think hard light source, hard shadows.
When you’re painting a sunlit scene, the hardness of the shadows cast, alter when you change the distance between the subject and the surface its shadow is being cast onto.
In the photo above there is a tree and a plant next to each other, both in direct hard sunlight and we’re only concerned with the shadows cast onto the ground.
The plant which is closest to the ground has harder and sharper cast shadows than the shadows cast by the leaves of the tree that are further away from the ground.
Notice how they’re soft and blurry.
In this photo, again you can easily compare the crisp clear shadow shape at the base of the railings with the soft abstract shadow shape of the tree foliage.
Just a change in distance between the subject and the surface its shadow is being cast onto.
“No shadow is black. It always has a colour. Nature knows only colours … white and black are not colours.”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Impressionist Painter
When I say the word shadow, what’s is the first colour that springs to mind?
Usually, it’s black or grey.
But actually, cast shadows are the surface they fall onto.
#3 & 4. Colour in the cast shadows
The colour of the cast shadow is dependent on two main things:
- The colour of the light source
- The colour of the surface the shadow is falling onto
The colour of the light source
You might have heard artists talking about how a cool light source creates warm shadows and a warm light source creates cool shadows.
Now, this is technically true but I think it can be a little misleading because personally when I think of cool, I think of a strong blue colour and when I think of warm, I think of a bright yellow or orange.
But when you’re observing shadow colours the effect is much, much more subtle.
As a general rule of thumb, a sunny day will be a warm yellow light – producing a subtle, blue/violet, cool grey shadow.
You have to look closely to try and see the subtle temperature and colour changes.
When we isolate the colour of the cast shadows from the jugs above, you can see the purpley hue quite clearly compared to the neutral grey paint swatch on the right.
The colour of the surface
The jugs have been photographed on a white surface, so the shadow colour is in direct response to the colour of the light source.
But when cast shadows fall onto a coloured surface, you’ve got to take this into account as well as the colour of the light source.
For example, on a sunny day, leaves casting a shadow onto grass would look different to leaves casting a shadow onto a dusty path.
You would have the same shadow colour that would be purple/grey initially, (because of the warm sunlight) but then it would be altered by the general colour of the surface that the shadow is falling onto.
John Singer Sargent, Two Wine Glasses, 1875
In this plein air Sargent painting, you can see how he has handled the different cast shadow colours depending on the local colour of the surfaces.
The area of the white tablecloth in shadow is a muted cool pink/purple whereas the floor colour is much warmer becasue of the yellow ochre ground beneath it.
Also, there is a small cast shadow under the silver tray in the foreground that it close to a warm Burnt Umber due to the warmth of the wooden tabletop it is sat upon.
There are a couple of small exceptions to these rules:
- When you have a translucent object and light can pass through it, like a stained glass window, a thin leaf or oil in a glass bottle. Even in the photo of the translucent oils below, note how the colours at the far edge of all the shadows are all very close in hue. This is because they are no longer being altered by the translucency and the shadows are all falling on the same white surface.
- When you have a reflective object, like a white porcelain cup and the ambient light reflects off the surface and bounces into the cast shadow.
Does the subject have any influence on the cast shadow colour?
It can do, but not as much as you think.
In this example, the colour in the cast shadows reflected from these three paint pots is more apparent due to the shortness of the cast shadow, the brightness of the colours of the paints and the white surface.
Mostly, the subject wouldn’t have such an obvious impact.
#5. Be Aware of the Tonal Value
So we’ve observed the shapes, the edge quality, the local colour of the surface and colour temperature of the light source.
Finally, we need to observe the value of the shadows, how light or dark they are, also notice how they become lighter in value towards the edges.
And because you’re outside, shadows are often lighter than you think due to the sunlight bouncing back into them.
Reference photos taken with a phone or camera set to automatic, will almost always over-darken your shadows.
A simple remedy is to edit your photos with the built-in software by lifting up the shadows in the ‘shadow’ setting.
One more thing to remember is that because of the amount of bounced light outside, a white object will reflect more light into its shadows, you can see here how the cast shadow of the black jug is slightly darker.
Judging the tonal value accurately is a tricky one!
But if you can get it right, it will make your paintings really believable.
A good tip is to start with a mid-tone, value 5 of an earth colour that’s sympathetic to your scene.
Use this as a starting base when blocking in your cast shadows. It won’t be perfect, but it will give you a good tone to judge other colours against and as the painting develops you can refine and add more colour, darken or lighten.
Recap of the Steps
Step 1 – Observe the shape of the cast shadow. This is in direct response to the shape of the object casting the shadow and the shape of the surface the shadow falls onto.
Step 2 – Observe the edge quality of the shadow. How far is the shadow from the object you’re painting? How much has is softened (even in hard sunlight)
Step 3 – Observe the colour temperature of the light source. Warm light, cool but very muted shadows, cool light warm but very muted shadows and keep it consistent. If you decide on a warm light and cool shadow composition stick to that throughout the painting.
Step 4 – Observe the local colour of the surface the cast shadow is falling onto.
Step 5 – Observe the value of the shadow. If you’re working from a reference image, bring up the shadows.
p.s I’m working on a new still life project ebook that will look more closely at mixing and matching the form shadows that make up the second part of the light and shadow puzzle!
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