Breaking Down the Darkness

You can take classes, practice day and night, and study objects constantly until you can render just about any subject with a realistic likeness. But without a solid understanding of the importance of shadows, your painting will still lack truth. The dark areas help define a surface and give it dimension (as I discussed in the July 2002 Brushing Up column). And one of the most critical aspects of painting convincing, vibrant shadows is the use of color. Take a close look at the shadowy areas in masterworks and you?ll see what I mean. Rich, deep color, used wisely, can mean the difference between a flat painting and one that practically pulsates.

Sources of Color
There are four sources for the colors that appear in any given shadow. The first is the local color, which is the actual surface color of the object you?re depicting. In the shadow, of course, you paint a darker version of that same color. In the first stage of my picture of the peach below, for example, the entire surface is in a near-monochromatic orange hue. Here the shadows are merely a darker application of that same orange.

The second source of a shadow?s color is the local color?s complementary hue. The complement, if applied judiciously, will darken the base color without changing its identity. At the same time, the complement will make the original color less intense or less saturated. In the case of my peach then, a blue complement will make the orange less brilliant&#!51;which is just what you?d expect in the shadows.

The third source of color in shadows is reflected light. This is the light that bounces off a nearby surface and into the shadow side of an object&#!51;especially onto the lighter areas that face that nearby surface. That reflected light will always be the color of the surface it bounces off. (And here?s a bonus tip: Textural details aren?t always as sharp in reflected light as they are in direct light.)

So if, for example, you paint a blue object with its shadow side next to a red wall, some of that red must appear within the dark side of that blue object. If it doesn?t, these two elements won?t quite look as if they belong next to each other in the scene.

Finally, the fourth source of shadow color is the atmospheric or environmental hue. This is the overall chromatic context in which an object appears. It may be a single color, such as a blue backdrop for a portrait painting. Or it might be an overriding tone of multiple colors, such as the warm browns, reds, oranges and yellows of an autumn countryside landscape. Whatever they may be, your shadows must ?borrow? such environmental colors if you want them to look as if they truly belong in their surroundings.


Choosing Your Shadow Colors: This simple watercolor sequence demonstrates the basic chromatic principles of shadows. Here, to simplify the process, I haven?t concerned myself as much with reflected light. And for purposes of clarity, I used sharper tonal and chromatic contrasts between the stages than I might otherwise with a typical painting. This should make the effects more apparent.

Special Hints
There?s no rule, I should add, that all four sources of shadow hues have to be different from one another. A local color and its complement, certainly, will always be unalike. But the complementary hue, the reflected hue or the atmospheric hue may sometimes be the same. For example, in my demonstration painting of the peach, I could have used the blue as both my complementary color and my atmospheric color.

Also keep in mind that when you paint the shadows on a white object—such as sheets hanging on a clothesline—you can darken them with gray (at least in part). Be aware, though, that your atmospheric color may be very potent here. It may be so dominant, in fact, that you may be able to use it all by itself, instead of gray, to create shadows on the white areas. And make sure you don?t forget the colors of reflected light, which are particularly self-evident on white objects.

Many artists say that their love of color is a primary reason for why they paint. Remember that color exists everywhere, even in the darkest depths, and both you and your paintings will be enriched.

Rocco J. Mirro is a fine artist and a graphic designer at St. John?s University in New York City.

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