Friday, May 1

How to Paint the Color of Shadows

Today’s Image
Motel Cactus
Acrylic on Canvas
Copyright 2008

It’s May Day, time to turn the calendar page on my Impressionists art calendar. And featured for May is Camille Pissarro and his painting “A Corner of the Garden at the Hermitage”--a beautiful painting to look at for the next 31 days.

Today’s blog, however, is about painting shadows and how tricky that can be. In reading more about it, I’m pretty sure it's tricky for me, you, and most artists including even those who are expert and renowned.

Why is it so tricky for so many? It goes back, I think, way back to when our brains taught us to recognize what things are. After we had learned what a tree is, we then stopped looking at them. So, a tree’s a tree, a house is a house, and a lake is a lake, and they’re all the same.

The fact is that most people don’t actually see details when they look at things, and therein lies the problem with shadows, too. Today's Image is an acrylic of mine in which I really had to concentrate on painting the shadows.

We know shadows are present in bright sunlight or in any light, really, but we don’t think about them as objects. But they are just as real as the tree itself even if they are fleeting and changeable. A professional artist told me that painters generally don’t paint their subjects with enough dark shadows or contrast. They tend NOT to paint shadows properly to make whatever they’re painting look realistic.

Here are a few things I researched on the subject (in real books, too, not just on Google!) that I hope will be helpful to you.

"Shadows are important to your artwork," Arcas says In Mastering Perspective for Beginners. Shadows allow the artist to capture the three dimensions and transmit them to two-dimensional paper or canvas. Shadows are nothing more than the absence of light. Sounds easy enough, but because factors, such as the source of light (natural or artificial) and the direction from which it comes, artists must learn how to paint them. In addition, there are two kinds of shadows—the shadow on the object itself and the shadow the object casts.

In addition to not being able to see them correctly, even when we do see shadows, we don't have a clue as to what color they are. Ask anyone what color shadows are, and they'll probably say, "black." Wrong.

In Color A Course for Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors, Betty Edwards says one problem is that we only see the colors we expect to see. She uses the example of an orange that is never “orange” all over. Depending on the brightness of the light it’s in, its colors range from almost white in the highlight to orange, red-orange, to a dull brown in the shadow.

What about the color of the shadow the orange casts? Ms. Edwards goes on to say the color of the shadow cast depends on the color of the surface itself. The color of the surface will be reflected in the cast shadow, but it also depends on, 1) reflected light from the object itself and 2) any surrounding or background color.

In Exploring Color, Nita Leland says shadows are like veils through which you can see underlying colors of the surface only darker and never black (I told you so) or opaque. She says to use 1) a deeper color of the surface, or 2) a complementary color to the overall light (does she mean color?), or 3) a creative color (not sure what she means) and not just a blue or violet, which I read are popular choices, or 4) chromatic neutrals , which are similar to a range of grays with hints of color (chroma). She also says some artists paint the shadow first, some last, and some as they go, but you should experiment.

See how quickly it becomes confusing as to how to mix colors to paint a shadow? Unfortunately, there is no simple, 1-2-3 guide for painting shadows. No wonder it’s tricky.



  1. I like your blog.. Looking forward to reading more about art.. Can we ex links? just let me know.