Tuesday, 5 August 2014


In an earlier blog post, I talked about WHAT'S IN THE SHADOWS and showed how to use the Photoshop levels slider to lighten a photo and find out what is in the shadow areas.  Shadows often look black, or very dark, in a photo, because the camera cannot expose for both light and shadow correctly at the same time.

Today, I'd like to talk a little about what you are actually SEEING when you look at light and shadow in a scene, and how you need to THINK as you paint.

Light is created by the sun.  If the sun is obscured, the light is still there.....but is obviously less bright!   (ok, I can hear you - duh - does she think I am stupid?)
But what you need to be aware of is that it is not only less bright....it is also a COOLER light.   Think of the light as a paintbrush, not just illuminating what it falls on, but painting it too.  And the warm light from direct sunlight will warm everything it touches.   Cooler light from an overcast sky will "paint" the scene with quite different colours.

I have recently critiqued the work of a painter who took his photo very literally.  The lights in the photo looked white...even on a dark tree trunk...so he used white!   But this means he was just copying the photo without thinking about what might be happening in real life.
 Using pure white did not give any feeling of warmth. Even a white wall, washed with sunlight, will be more golden-white than pure white.

So -you need to become aware of the colour of the light.  We may not be able to physically "see" light, but when it lands on something, it colours that something in a particular way.

Sunlight is warm.
Electric lamplight is warm.
Candlelight is warm.


Fluorescent light breaks the rule...........it is a cool light.  and
Obscured sun - overcast days - will provide cooler light, so a green apple on a windowsill on an overcast day will actually change  colour if the sun suddenly comes out and hits it!  And that white wall can be painted with white on an overcast day!

 If you are working from a photo, and the camera has not taken all of this into account,  you have to use your brain, as well as your eyes. 

 Another little rule of thumb (where did that expression originate, I wonder) is WARM LIGHT = COOL SHADOWS, and COOL LIGHT = WARMER SHADOWS.


Shadows are LACK OF LIGHT.  They are rarely black, as they might appear in a photo.  They have soft edges.   And observation with your own eyes is vitally important.  Your eyes are FAR more powerful than a camera's lens, and they see more colour. 

 There are theories about the colour of shadows...you may read that a shadow colour will always contain the "complementary colour" of the object that casts the shadow.  Theories like this are worth considering....but there are so many things that can affect the colour of a shadow, that often, the theory doesn't fit.  Close observation and consideration of what is happening in the scene is the only way to be sure you get your shadows right.  You must use your brain, and your creativity.  You are a painter, not a camera, so there is no excuse for black or yuk grey shadows.  Or uniformly purple shadows.    You need to be careful to ensure that your shadows "work" for the painting - you may need to modify slightly to make them look right. 

The important things to remember are these:
  • SHADOWS ARE TRANSPARENT AND WILL BE INFLUENCED BY THE SURFACE ON WHICH THEY ARE FALLING, (study the floor of the picture above)  and sometimes, surrounding colours may affect the shadow too.   Just ask yourself, when you are painting a scene, "how does this patch of colour compare to that one?" and keep comparing time and again as you work.
  • Shadows are seldom flat areas of colour, they will have variation within them - look out for these, so that your shadow areas are not too monotonous.  however, beware of over-exaggeration of colour, particularly purples. 
  • Also, an interesting thing to observe is that the farther a cast shadow has to travel, the softer or rounder its shape will become.  Also, it will become gradually lighter at its distant edges.
  • Shadows have soft edges.  this is important. 
Shadows need to be considered as important elements within your painting.  They can add colour, contrast and drama. They help to emphasise the light.  They can be important compositionally, providing pathways thro and around an image, contributing in a very positive way to the dynamic quality of the painting.  Dappled light, and shadow, can be a subject in itself, and will create a feeling of life and movement in a scene. 

Enjoy the light, and celebrate the shadows!



  1. hi Jackie...i have been following your blog for sometime now and absolutely love it! not only are you paintings amazing.....but your advice is wonderful! i particularly love this post cos it is something i struggle with (actually i struggle a lot with all aspects of painting with pastels, but love it nevertheless!). i thought i'd give you a small answer to your question about the 'rule of thumb'. you might be interested to know that it originates with the fact that, sometime ago....maybe 2 centuries, i'm not sure.....it described the size of a rod a man could beat his wife with....as long as the rod (or whatever it was he was using) was no thicker than a thumb, he was allowed to use it! Nice eh :( ......

    anyway, i will be studying your images with more time in the fall and winter when i am more able to spend time painting. i'm a full time potter, i live on Cape Breton Island, and this is a busy time of year for us.

    Cheers, and once again many, many thanks for all your sharing of your amazing knowledge. if you lived closer i'd be signing up for a course!


    1. thank you Linda, on all counts! Great to have an explanation of "rule of thumb", and thanks too for the kind words. I sometimes do a pottery class...dithering now about continuing, I have so much else on my plate, and I get frustrated with my glazing efforts, the glazes are often contaminated by the young students at college. I have more control when working at home. But I love good ceramics.

  2. Just recently subscribed to your blog and thank you for the wealth of information . The subject of shadows is very well explained and helpfull. Thank you . I'm going to enjoy reading through your past posts and will look forward to the next.


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