Shadowing Your Subject

Artist Debi Watson finds inspiration to paint from the abstract shapes she sees in nature. Using watercolor and a realistic painting style, her goal is to render her subjects so that viewers take a closer look at the things they see every day. For her painting Lady Bird, she wanted to convey a sense of movement in the almost abstract leaves and shadows to add interest to the scene.


A Subtle Focal Point: Lady Bird (watercolor, 15×21) by Debi Watson.

Areas to Work On
Watson knows the watercolor medium and how to control it?maybe too well. One of the exciting things I’ve found about watercolor is that it has a “mind of its own,” creating interesting passages and patterns not easily made with a brush. Lady Bird could be more enticing had Watson allowed the medium to flow and wander, only controlling it where necessary as she developed her painting. For example, she could have applied a more fluid, sweeping shadow pattern on the white fence boards rather than detailing each individual shadow cast by the leaves.

Art Principles At Work
Designing with shadows. According to the title of the painting, the focal point of this piece is the female cardinal on the fence. However, because the value of the bird is similar to that of the surrounding foliage, our eyes are drawn instead to the gate handle and the repetition of dark lines between the stark white fence boards. The strongest dark shape against the lightest light?or vice versa?will always cause this to occur. Throwing a large cast shadow across the lower portion of the painting would play down the contrast of the gate handle and the dark spaces between the boards (see the value studies at right). In addition, the bird sitting on the fence would also create a strong cast shadow. Adding this shadow would help anchor it to the fence.

Varying edges. Allowing edges of shapes to be hard, soft, lost and found gives any shape much more feeling and helps tie that shape to or separate it from its surroundings. In Lady Bird, for instance, the hard edges of the foliage, the cast shadows and the bird give those elements a flat, tacked-on effect. As a result, these elements don’t adequately represent the movement of light that Watson wanted to capture in the painting. Soft edges also add dimension. By softening some of those edges and the left underside of the bird, those edges would recede and give the bird a rounder, more three-dimensional shape.

Likewise, Watson could create more dimension and less contrast in the fence gaps by softening the left edges (shadow side) and leaving the right edges (sunny side) hard. Edges are particularly challenging if you use photographs for reference because the camera gives you sharp or at least similar edges throughout a photo. That means you must be conscious of them and push (soften) and pull (harden) them to create excitement and interest in your art. Successful hard-edged paintings do exist, but mostly to the extent that it’s the painter’s style of painting and not the style of traditional realism.

Raising the color temperature. Female birds blend in with the environment to protect their young. So making them more obvious while staying true to their nature is a challenge. Since coloring the cardinal a brighter red would be contrary to the title, adjusting the warmth and coolness of the colors surrounding it would be the key. Thus, Watson could cool down the shadow side of the background foliage on the left by keeping the colors progressively warmer to the right where the sunlight is directly hitting it. Watson could also add a little warmth?say, a glaze of a warmer yellow?to the sunny side of the bird.

Lessons Learned
I’m a stickler for using thumbnail value studies to help plan and solve problems before they become part of the painting. Doing them is worth the time, whether you’re working on location or in the studio. If Watson had done thumbnails before painting Lady Bird, she probably would have seen that the area of greatest contrast wasn’t the focal point, and where she needed to make her edges hard or soft.

All too often, we get caught up in painting the elements of a scene as we see them, not as we feel them. Don’t think so much about the actual object. Try to think of shapes, values and forms as they play against one another, and then inject shapes, colors and textures where they don’t actually exist. Doing this will take your art to the next level of creativity. For you not only need to paint a subject or situation well, but paint it in a manner that’s unique, no matter what the style might be.

About the Artist
“If you know what you want, and are willing to work hard for it, you can create your own reality,” says Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based artist Debi Watson. After recovering from carpal tunnel surgery on her hand a year and a half ago, she became a full-time artist. “The more time I spend painting and studying art, the more I can feel myself grow as an artist,” she says. Since turning pro, Watson has received several awards and had her work accepted in various regional and national juried shows, including Allied Artists in New York.

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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