Keys to Interesting Shadows

Q. I’m confused about the best way to paint shadows. I’ve read about so many different techniques! Is there one method that stands out to you as the best?

A. Shadows are so difficult. At least they were for me when I first began painting in watercolor. I didn’t mix colors; I just used black for shadows. All my shadows were black blobs under everything.

Too often, painters just add more of the same color to make something dark, and then throw on a darker color if it’s not getting dark enough.

What I finally figured out is that just because a shadow is dark doesn’t mean I should whip out a dark color to paint it. The color of a shadow will depend on many factors, but most of all, it will be influenced by the color of the object off of which the shadow is cast. The best way to capture this effect is to mix your darks using complementary colors!

For example, to make the shadowy area on the pinkish wall in my painting at right, Table for Two (watercolor on paper, 30×22), I took the colors I’d used to paint the wall and mixed them with their complementary colors (in this case, I mixed in some greens). Using a complementary color to create a darker value will prevent you from mixing a muddy color. The result will be what many painters call “interesting darks.”

Also, remember when you’re trying to darken an area to wait until each wash dries to get an accurate idea of how much darker you need to go. If it’s still not dark enough yet, you can either go over the area with your original mixture again, or just with the complementary color alone. Let the area dry again and continue layering until your shadow is as dark as you want it.

Finally, as you paint a shadow, it’s important to realize that there is something going on within it, whether it’s grass, cement, dirt, clothing and so on. Notice in the shadows in my paining Table for Two that there are walls, terrace, shrubs and trees reflected in the shadowed areas.

Artist and teacher Tony van Hasselt conducts watercolor workshops in Provence and in the United States. He’s written two instruction books and co-wrote The Watercolor Fix-it Book and Painting With the White of your Paper (both from North Light Books).

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