Shadow Dancing

For any composition, whether it’s a painting, a sketch or a detailed drawing, the addition of shadows can determine its success or failure. When you have light, you have shadow—this principle is essential to realism and it’s key to giving a picture an exciting sense of life. Here are some of the easiest ways to give those shadows in your drawings the attention they deserve.

Follow the Light
There are two basic types of shadows: the cast shadow, which is found on a surface where the light is blocked by another object, and the shadow side of an object, which simply doesn’t face the light source. For cast shadows, the direction of the cast is crucial, and it depends on the direction and distance of the incoming light. When the light source is very distant (typically the sun), all its shadows should follow the same angle. When it’s very near, such as an interior light, the shadows will splay out in various directions because the objects in the picture are at different angles to the light source. The drawings of the fence on page 22 illustrate the difference.


Telling Time: Shadows can give a clear indication of the sun’s position—here it’s high and to the near left—to better inform viewers of the setting.

A cast shadow from any object starts out darker than the object casting it. With a vase sitting on a table, for instance, the area of the cast shadow adjacent to the base of the vase will be darker than the vase, and will also be the darkest area of the cast shadow. As the shadow recedes, a reversal occurs and it becomes lighter than the object causing the shadow. Be aware, too, that the surface the shadow is cast upon can distort its shape.

Also, the definition diminishes and the edges get fuzzy as the shadow recedes; a long shadow cast by the sun can just disappear into the distance. In other words, the greater the distance between the object and its cast shadow, the less definition the shadow has. If the vase casts a shadow on a wall immediately next to it, the shadow will be sharp-edged, but a far wall would show a much lighter and less distinct shadow.

A Better Definition
The shadow side of an object provides a great opportunity to describe its shape, especially when it has curves. With a box, for example, it’s not too hard to create the line where the sunlit side meets the shadow plane, but with curves there’s no definite point of transition. The indefinite line where the gradual transition is made is called the projection edge; it’s the darkest portion of the shadow, and it’s where the oncoming light skims past the object. As you go around to the shadow side of the lighthouse below, the value becomes a little lighter, usually due to distance and backlighting. This tells us that the object is round.


Mixing It Up: The shape of the cast shadow created by this walkway is modified by the round structure of the lighthouse, so that the darkest portion is close under the walkway and gets lighter as it goes both ways around the wall. Below that, the vertical area facing the sun is the lightest, and the juncture of these two areas is well defined. As the curvature of the structure increases, the light plane becomes darker to the point of the projection edge, where it then grows lighter toward the shadow side of the lighthouse.

Varying the direction of your strokes will help to define the shadows in your drawing. Shadows under eaves, for instance, may have pencil strokes running in the same direction as the incoming light, and long strokes can create the appearance of an elongated shadow. There can be a combination of line directions on highly textured surfaces, and some curving lines can emphasize the curvature of the walls. You might also find that just a series of horizontal parallel lines is effective, with the values changing as the shadow changes.

Your best guide to accuracy will always be careful observation of real life, where you’ll never run out of fascinating shadows to study. Keep a close eye on the values, have fun, and remember that the right shadows can do more for your drawings than most of us realize.

Artist and instructor Butch Krieger is a contributing editor for The Artist’s Magazine. He lives in Port Angeles, Washington.

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