7 Tips for Painting Convincing Shadows

Don't Discount the Importance of Shadows in Your Paintings

The way a shadow is painted can make a painting just as easily as it can ruin one. Shadows shouldn't be done as a last minute afterthought — something totally separate from the main subject of the painting — but need to be considered as seriously as every other element.

There are many things to consider when it comes to painting shadows and it is not as easy as throwing down some black paint. Let's look at tips and techniques painters use to create realistic shadows that become part of the final painting.

Woman drawing the oil painting on the beach
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Pure, straight-from-the-tube black is invariably too dark in tone and too consistent (or flat) in color to make a satisfactory shadow. Few shadows in nature are truly black, so you need to account for those colors when painting shadows.

What's a good approach to shadows?

  • Mixing a chromatic black is an improvement on straight black. It has the look of black but is not black.
  • Using a complementary color for the shadow will produce a more subtle, natural effect. This is a preferred approach to shadows.
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The ultimate lesson in suitable colors for shadows comes from the Impressionists. They were not only masters at painting but at observing nature and the effects of light as well. Through this, they learned how to mix and use colors to create brilliant shadows.

If black isn't allowed on the palette, just what do you use?

  • Greens and purples are popular shadow colors.
  • Deep blues are also a nice touch as many shadows have a natural blue tone.
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A crucial part in painting a successful shadow is identifying what type of shadow it is because there is no such thing as a generic shadow. You need to know what the differences are between a cast shadow and a form shadow and how to approach painting them.

Wait, there's more than one type of shadow?

  • A form shadow is the portion of an object that is naturally darker and away from the light source. These shadows are used (along with highlights) to define the 'form' of the object.
  • A cast shadow is one that is created by an object that is blocking light falling onto another object. For instance, your shadow on the sidewalk on a sunny day.
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At what stage in a painting should you do the shadows? Painters need to make decisions about when to paint shadows in and there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.

Decisions, decisions... when should you paint shadows?

  • Leave the shadow area white until you're ready for it.
  • Paint the shadow on top of other paint using a glaze or a similar technique.
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Don't Forget About Texture and Tone

Just like other parts of your painting, the shadows need to have depth. Avoid painting 'flat' shadows, but think of them in the same way you do brighter portions of the painting.

What does a shadow need to be believable?

  • Texture - Look at the shadows around you right now. Have they lost all detail and texture? Of course not and your painting should not, either.
  • Tone or Value - Shadows are not a flat color, but they have darker and lighter values within the shadow.

Create a gentle shadow in watercolor with the final layer of glaze. Again, this isn't done with black paint but a suitable primary instead.

How can a glaze create shadows?

  • The multiple layers of color used in a glaze blend together to look like the dark tones of a shadow.
  • It's best to start light as you can add more layers of glaze, but you cannot remove it if you go too dark.
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Don't think that shadows do not apply to seascapes and other water scenes. Everything has a shadow, not only the rocks on the shoreline, but waves may too.

Pay attention to the angle of the sun.

  • You water scenes will have more or fewer and deeper or softer shadows depending on the direction of the light. 
  • Shadows add dimension to water and give you the opportunity to express moving waves or flowing streams.
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