The Shady Spots

In a representational painting, shadows are an indispensable part of composition. Not only do shadows create the illusion of three-dimensional forms, but they relate those forms to one another in spatial depth.

They’re also essential to the dramatic mood of a painting. No matter what the subject matter, shadows can create a deep sense of mystery, desolation or intrigue, as well as character. If you stick to the following principles, you’ll find you can paint convincing shadows with any medium.

Concentrate on Consistency
First of all, the shadows in your depiction must all be consistent, both in terms of the light source and chromatic unity. It may sound obvious, but make sure the main light in your painting casts shadows in the same direction. And don’t overlook the color and quality of light as well.

I once saw a group portrait in which each individual had been painted from a separate photographic source—and each person’s lighting was different. Believe me, it can look bizarre if you have, for instance, one figure illuminated by an intensely warm, direct light standing right next to someone bathed in diffused, cool light. The quality of a shadow is always determined by the light that created it. In addition, each shadow in a painting should have at least one hue in common. Even if the objects in your scene are different colors (and therefore have different-colored shadows), at least one color should recur in every one.

Slave Over Accuracy
Representational art is an illusion, and inaccurate shadows can totally destroy that illusion. You must paint a shadow accurately, at the correct size and in the right place. First of all, don’t forget that shadows aren’t the only thing that can cause a surface to look dark. I’ve commonly seen beginning portrait artists make shadows that look more like dirt on a subject’s face.

It’s important to note that shadows have shapes and the configuration of lights and darks defines the surface forms of an object. So if the shadow is misshapen, misplaced or out of proportion, the object beneath it will also appear to be malformed. There goes the shadow’s credibility.

Contrast and Color
Shadows are not flat, dark areas completely void of illumination. Even within the dark side of an object there are lights and darks that define the surface forms. Also, take care not to shade the overall shadows too dark. This can be an issue when working from photos, because shadows in photographs are often too dim.

Make sure your colors look “right” in the shadows. (For a more detailed discussion of how to break down a shadow’s colors, see next month’s Brushing Up column.) For one thing, avoid darkening a color—especially a fleshtone—by adding black to it. Just because you can lighten a color with white, don’t presume that you can just as readily tone it down with black. The only time this might be appropriate is when the hue is already very dark to begin with, such as what you’d find in a deep crevice shadow.

Finally, one last tip. You can achieve your most luminous and lifelike shadow colors by glazing them one over the other—just as I did with my demonstration portrait at left. This is the way the old masters did it; just take care that you abide by the fat-over-lean rule if you’re working in oils.

Whatever your medium, an understanding of the principles of consistency, accuracy, tonal value and color will take you a long way toward painting more convincing shadows.

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