Using Colors in Light and Shadow

Never be afraid to use color. Your job as the artist is to entertain the eye as it moves through your work, so plan for wonderful color surprises in the shadows or other unexpected areas and you will begin to see your paintings become more full of life, light and depth.

Here are some tips you can use to enhance your art:

Think correct value, not correct color. Whether you are painting flowers or silver or fabric, the item you are portraying will be a specific color in your photo or setup, but it surely does not need to be that exact color in your painting. What’s more important is to have correct values. The eye reads realism mainly by the proper placement of lights and darks, not by true-to-life color.

Spot opportunities to break up solid color with varied color. A brown tabletop will be more interesting if it is not just a solid, mousy brown. Introduce some reds or violets into shadows and maybe make the sunlit areas more golden; the table will still read as brown but will have much more interest.

A color does not need to jump off the page to glow. Subtle colors that glow are often the prettiest and most natural. Plus, grayed hues make the more intense colors pop and the whites seem even brighter.


For more techniques that let your watercolors shine, check out A Celebration of Light by Jane Freeman, available at fine-art stores, bookstores and online suppliers. Or click here to order it directly from North Light Books.

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