When Do I Add the Shadows in a Painting?

Painting shadows using complementary colors
Painting shadows using complementary colors. Image: ©2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Question: When Do I Add the Shadows in a Painting?

"If you're painting shadows using complementary colors, do you leave the shadow area unpainted until you're ready to paint the shadow or not? For example, if you painted an orange and part of it was in a cast shadow, do you paint the entire orange an orange color then paint over that with blue for the places that are shadowed or is it that you don't paint the shadowed area orange at all, you just paint blue in that area?

Also, is there any general tendencies in terms of color when doing form shadows as compared to cast ones? How is shadow painting possible working wet-on-wet without ending up with brown?" -- Conan H


You could paint shadows either by leaving the area unpainted or by painting the complementary color on top. (How's that for a frustrating answer?) The best thing to do is to test to see which works best for you by doing two studies of the same subject using the different approaches.

Personally, what I think gives the best result is to paint the shadow with a glaze on top. So paint the entire orange an orange color, let it dry completely, then paint a thin glaze of blue over the area of the shadow. If you want it to be darker, leave it to dry and then paint a thin layer of blue again. I think this approach gives a more complex color and allows for very subtle variations in the darkness of the shadow.

I would treat cast and form shadows the same in terms of color; the differences are really in how sharp the edges of the shadows are and the tone (how dark the shadow is). When you're painting, try not to think "object" and "shadow", which can create a divide between the two; rather try to think in areas or shapes of color.

It can be really hard to see color in a shadow as it can be very subtle. It does get easier as you get more experience with intense observation, but it's also one of those things some people find easier than others.

As for painting wet-on-wet without ending up with a mud-like mix ... I don't know how other people do it, but if I'm working wet on wet I try to mix the paint as little as possible on the canvas by dabbing the one color on top of the other with short brush strokes rather than long, heavy ones.

I also wipe the brush on a cloth regularly to try to eliminate any mixed color. It ends up as an area of broken color, which when you step away from the painting mixes visually.