Step-by-Step Demo: Painting Cast Shadows

Cast shadows are not usually the focal point of a painting, but they convey important information to the viewer. For one thing, they show where an object is in space. When an object and its cast shadow touch, then they both rest upon the same surface. Establishing such surfaces in a painting keeps objects from seeming to float. Cast shadows also tell the viewer about the brightness and nearness of the light source. My painting Circle of Life  (the last image in this article) demonstrates how to paint effective, believable cast shadows.

Scroll down to view my two reference photos and  a step-by-step demonstration for the painting.

1.  Reference photos  (above)
For Circle of Life I used two reference photos taken at different times. That worked because the light source in both photos was of the same intensity, color and direction.

2.  Roughing in (above)
I like to paint the background and cast shadows first as part of the foundation of a still-life painting, but you can certainly paint the shadows later. Many dark paint colors aren’t opaque, so you may not be able with the first paint layer to paint your shadows as dark as you want. Just let the layer dry and then darken it with another layer of paint.

Once you get your darks right, your light areas come to life, so with each layer or painting session, you must continually evaluate what needs to be done. That’s why it’s a good idea to set aside some of the background and shadow colors (sealed with plastic wrap) for future layers, reworkings and touch-ups. For my background and shadows, I used Sennelier burnt umber and Winsor & Newton Naples yellow light and titanium white.

3.  Blending edges (above)
The most important quality of shadows is their edges. Are they hard and crisp, indicating bright or intense light, or are they soft and barely visible, indicating softer lighting? Does the quality of the edges change from hard to soft? In my reference photos, which were taken in bright sunlight, the shadows have very hard edges all the way around. That could be problematic for two reasons:

  1. Hard, crisp edges attract the eye, so they compete with the focal area.
  2. A hard edge separates a shape or area from its surrounding areas.

Your reference material may show hard edges all the way around a shadow’s perimeter, but that shadow will be more believable if you soften those edges. This makes the shadow appear to be a part of the surface rather than separate from it. Start with the tiniest bit of softening of the shadow edge closest to the object casting the shadow. Then soften the edges more and more as they recede from the subject. In my painting you can see this transition most clearly in the shadow of the hanging leaf (see detail below).

Detail showing hard edge of shadow  (above)
I recommend three edge transitions from hard to soft, but if the shadow is very large or long, you might want more than three. Also remember that hard edges attract the eye, so the hardest edge belongs near the focal area of your painting. In Circle of Life, the hanging leaf is the focal area, so the shadow edges nearest this leaf are the hardest (see detail, above). 


4.  Reworking Values
Value gradation is another important quality in shadows. The hanging-leaf shadow in my reference photo (second image in article) has little gradation, making the shadow less interesting. In fact, a photograph, whether taken digitally or with film, doesn’t represent the darks of an image as well as it does the lights.

When painting, you need to add what you know to what you see in a photograph. What you know is that usually a shadow is darkest closest to the object that’s casting the shadow. The shadow gets lighter as it moves away from that object. The exception occurs when objects are thin enough to let light pass through them, as they do in my reference photo of leaves on a shelf (first image in article). When this happens, the shadows closest to the object may be lighter.

In this fourth step I repainted the shadows to emphasize value transitions. Generally, a shadow should have at least three values. I also lightened the ledge area to make it more interesting and to balance its light with that on the hanging leaf.

5.  Finishing Circle of Life (above; oil, 24×15)
To complete the painting, I glazed the darkest areas of all the shadows with a couple of layers of transparent paint (Daniel Smith quinacridone gold, Winsor & Newton alizarin crimson and French ultramarine blue). I also added the reflected leaf colors on the ledge.

Jane Jones is the author of Classic Still Life Painting (Watson-Guptill, 2004) and a popular workshop teacher. Visit to learn more.

This article first appeared as "Shadow Secrets" in the May issue of The Artist’s  Magazine

You may also like these articles:

One thought on “Step-by-Step Demo: Painting Cast Shadows

  1. marjo

    hallo,i”m from holland and i am a big fan off Jane,she is amazing,.
    i have buy her book,but it’s some difficult to read in english.,i find this site,and i love it.